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W. C. FIELDS: HIS FOLLIES AND FORTUNES 



BOOKS BY ROBERT LEWIS TAYLOR 



W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes 
Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief 
Adrift in a Bone yard 



ROBERT LEWIS TAYLOR 



W. C. FIELDS 



HIS FOLLIES 
AND FORTUNES 



DOUBLED AY & COMPANY, INC., 1949 



GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK 



A condensation of this material 

appeared in The Saturday Evening Post 

Copyright 1949, by Robert Lewis Taylor 
All Rights Reserved 

Printed in the United States of America by 
The H addon Craftsmen, Inc., Scranton, Pa. 

m 



To Fields' great friend, Gene Fowler, 
in gratitude for his large-hearted help 
and advice during the preparation of 
this book. 



ILLUSTRATIONS 



These illustrations follow page 54 

Fields in one of his greatest roles as Micawber in David 
Copperfield 

Micawber steps warily through a world a-swarm with 
sharp-eyed creditors 

The young vaudeville star on tour in Australia in 1903 

In Six of a Kind, Fields' face betrays a suspicion that his 
pool cue may not be altogether straight 

Adjacent sufferers in Six of a Kind include Mary Boland, 
Gracie Allen, and George Burns 

John Barrymore and his close friend, Fields, the mighty lover 

Fields and Allison Skipworth in // / Had a Million 

Fields, as Cuthbert J. Twilly, directs a romantic leer at Mae 
West in My Little Chickadee 

The unctuous faker of Poppy suggests a pose to Edward 
Steichen for Vanity Fair 

A favorite stunt of his vaudeville days 

Fields in upper-class regalia for a Broadway show 

The star of Poppy, a hit Broadway musical 

vii 



Illustrations 

In his Long Island movie period, Fields exhibits the com- 
fortable garb of the typical dedicated golfer 

The gay blade of musical comedy and a pair of Broadway 
beauties 

Fields and Zazu Pitts in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch 

Fields blocks an ill-advised cinema attempt to ply him with 
water 

Fields and Baby LeRoy 

The adhesive Mrs. Micawber offers pearls from her ma- 
ternal experience to the departing Copperfield 

Carlotta Monti 

Fields and his actor friend, Sam Hardy 

Bob Howard reluctantly supplies refreshment to the come- 
dian in the course of a rigorous health session 

Fields presents his notion of a ventriloquist with a dummy in 
You Can't Cheat an Honest Man 

A friendly game with Bergen and McCarthy 

Fields in The Bank Dick 



Vlll 



W. C. FIELDS: HIS FOLLIES AND FORTUNES 



BOOK ONE: PART ONE 



CHAPTER ONE 



T 



.he life of W. G. Fields is a striking endorsement 
of Shakespeare's thought, "Sweet are the uses of adversity." 
There is no reason to believe that the Duke's philosophical ut- 
terance, in As You Like It, was calculated to prepare the world 
for Fields, but a knowledge of Fields 5 career would certainly have 
made things easier for the Duke. From infancy Fields found life 
laborious sledding, and he took extraordinary measures to tri- 
umph over all. Nobody in our recent history absorbed such a 
buffeting as a child and emerged so relentlessly successful in 
after life. By the time of his death, on Christmas Day, 1946, he 
was widely acknowledged to have become the greatest comic 
artist ever known. In his tempestuous youth he had achieved 
comfortable billing as "the greatest juggler on earth," but the title 
irked him — he was determined to establish his mind on a parity 
with his hands. For ten years the theater's best entrepreneurs as- 
sured him that he was a fine juggler and refused him parts in 
shows. The overwhelming unanimity of these rebuffs convinced 
Fields that he was a comedian ; he had come far by rejecting the 
opinions of others. His perseverance and his evolution into the 
funniest man in the theater, in the movies, and in radio, proved 
him right. 



W. C. Fields 

Many supporters of Chaplin have long resented Fields' noto- 
riety. Perhaps the best testimonial to Chaplin's greatness is the 
fact that Fields was incapable of watching him perform for more 
than a few minutes. The virtuosity of the little fellow's panto- 
mime caused Fields to suffer horribly. One evening, a few years 
before Fields' death, he was persuaded to attend a showing of 
early Chaplin two-reelers. At a point in the action where Chaplin 
suffocated a 300-pound villain by pulling a gas street lamp down 
over his head, the laughter rose in deafening crescendo, and 
Fields was heard to cough desperately. 

"Hot in here," he muttered to his companion, who was forti- 
fied against the cooling system with a heavy tweed jacket. "I need 
air." Fields left the theater and waited outside in his Lincoln. 
Later, asked what he thought of Chaplin's work, he said, "The 
son of a bitch is a ballet dancer." 

"He's pretty funny, don't you think?" his companion went on 
doggedly. 

"He's the best ballet dancer that ever lived," said Fields, "and 
if I get a good chance I'll kill him with my bare hands." 

Gene Buck, now the guiding spirit of AS CAP and once the 
principal assistant to Florenz Ziegfeld, picked Fields out of 
vaudeville in 19 14 and hired him for the Follies. In a letter to a 
friend, after Fields died, Buck said, "Next to Bert Williams, Bill 
was the greatest comic that ever lived, in my book. He was amaz- 
ing and unique, the strangest guy I ever knew in my lifetime. He 
was all by himself. Nobody could be like him and a great many 
tried. He was so damn different, original and talented. He never 
was a happy guy. He couldn't be, but what color and daring in 
this game of life ! He made up a lot of new rules forty years ago 
about everything : conduct, people, morals, entertainment, friend- 
ship, gals, pals, fate and happiness, and he had the courage to 
ignore old rules. 



"When I first met him he had taken a terrible kicking around 
in life, and he was tough, bitter, and cynical in an odd, humorous 
way. He was as good then as he was at his peak. His gifts and 
talents as an entertainer and comic were born in him, I think. 
Some guys learn through experience and practice being comics. 
Not Bill. God made him funny. He knew more about comedy and 
real humor than any other person with the exception of Bert 
Williams. I've had a lot to do with comics and their development, 
and assisted and transplanted many of them during my humble 
course, and I just want to say that when Bill left the other day, 
something great in the world died, and something very badly 
needed." 

Despite Buck's curtsy to Bert Williams, the gifted colored en- 
tertainer of the twenties, Fields as a national comic phenomenon 
had no counterpart. He became a symbol of fun; the applied 
skill of Chaplin and other funny men delighted audiences, but 
lovers of comedy laughed at the mention of Fields' name. Sensing 
this curious state of the public's mind, William Le Baron, former 
head of production at Paramount, for whom Fields made some of 
his best pictures, conceived the idea of opening movies of the 
master by showing only his feet walking. There was nothing 
especially hilarious about Fields' feet, though a full rear view of 
him, with all its pomp and fraudulent dignity, was uproarious. 
Without exception, however, audiences responded with noisy 
appreciation to their truncated first glimpse of the star. 

One of Fields' friends believes that this spontaneous merri- 
ment was due to the popular notion of his personal life. Fields' 
defiance of civilization, over a period of sixty-seven years, became 
an institution in which the public took pride. His work was in- 
distinguishable from his life ; when people applauded Fields' feet 
they were cheering his escape from the humdrum. Most persons, 
as a scholar has noted, harbor a secret affection for anybody with 



W. C. Fields 

a low opinion of humanity. Fields' early grapples with things 
like hunger, frost, bartenders and police gave him a vast, watch- 
ful suspicion of society and its patterns. This feeling shaped 
his art. When, in The Bank Dick, he started uneasily upon seeing 
a teller in a straw hat, he was only harking back to his youth. 
Fields' first bank account was opened after a brief conversation 
with the president, who happened to be wearing a hat at his desk. 
The hat worried Fields for years ; he kept checking back to see if 
the president was still on the job and the books intact. 

Fields' last motion picture, Never Give a Sucker an Even 
Break, which he wrote under his pen name of Otis Criblecoblis, 
was in some measure illustrative of his outlook. "His main pur- 
pose," said one of the studio officials, "seemed to be to break as 
many rules as possible and cause the maximum amount of trouble 
for everybody." A brief synopsis of the plot, which Fields first 
composed on the back of a grocery bill and for which he success- 
fully demanded that the studio (Universal) pay him $25,000 
follows : 

In the opening scene, Fields, as himself, is outlining an original 
story to a producer, in the presence of the ingenue and the leading 
man. After he explains that the action begins in a pool hall, with 
the ingenue wearing a false beard, they somehow appear to lose 
interest, and Fields wanders out to pick up his small niece, whom 
he has parked, for safety, in a shooting gallery. En route he stops 
to watch a group of disgusted urchins throw mudballs at a bill- 
board advertising one of his movies. He exclaims, "Godfrey 
Daniel!" (which was as near as he could ever manage to "god- 
damn" and still get by the Hays office) and proceeds. Shortly 
thereafter his niece's mother, Madame Gorgeous, a circus per- 
former, falls off a trapeze and is killed. Fields and his niece then 
leave by airplane for Mexico City, where he plans to sell wooden 
nutmegs to members of the Russian colony. On the way, he 



accidentally drops a bottle of whisky overboard and without hesi- 
tation dives over after it, landing on top of a mountain, where 
dwell a Mrs. Hemoglobin and her daughter, Ouliotta. Fields 
teaches the daughter a kissing game but leaps off the mountain 
when her mother wants to play. He continues to Mexico City, 
picks up his niece and several other members of the cast, who 
wander in and out at irrelevant times, and returns to the moun- 
tain, having heard that Mrs. Hemoglobin is wealthy. Although 
he woos her with seedy elegance, she is won by a rival wooden 
nutmeg salesman. Eventually, we learn that most of the foregoing 
was the story Fields was trying, in the first scene, to sell the 
producer. 

The Universal heads, when presented with this $25,000 epic, 
successfully concealed their excitement. One man felt that the 
plot, though fascinating, was thin; another came out flatfooted 
and said that, in spots, it even sounded bizarre. Still another 
ventured to surmise that the title, Never Give a Sucker an Even 
Break, would fit onto no theater marquee known to be in exist- 
ence anywhere in the world at that time. Fields declined their 
comments. He hoped, he said, that the title would prove unwieldy 
and that the announcement would be abbreviated, everywhere, to 
read, simply, "W. G. Fields — Sucker." As to the plot, he pointed 
out, with some justification, that it was every bit as powerful and 
realistic as his story The Bank Dick, which he wrote under his 
alternate pen name of Mahatma Kane Jeeves, and as You Can't 
Cheat an Honest Man, for which he received another screen 
credit under his third alternate pen name of Charles Bogle. The 
first of these creations hinged on his successful campaign to in- 
duce his prospective son-in-law, a bank clerk, to embezzle $500 
for investment in a beefsteak mine, and the second was concerned 
with the efforts of Fields, as Larson E. Whipsnade, a circus owner, 
to get his show across a state line before the sheriff caught him. 



W. C. Fields 

"Bill only had one story," says Eddie Sutherland, who directed 
several Fields pictures. "It wasn't a story at all, really — there was 
just an ugly old man, an ugly old woman, and a brat of a child." 
Creatively, Fields was aloof from the formal story. He considered 
life a highly disorganized tale, at the best, and he was convinced 
that art should follow in its footsteps. In consequence, he as- 
sembled, for a "plot," a series of very distantly related incidents 
aimed to depict the most deplorable and humorous aspects of 
human existence. It was his continuing program, for example, to 
steer children into saloons ; also, he underwrote many other enter- 
prises of dubious standing, such as theft, arson, swindling, fraud, 
mayhem and murder. 

One of the most uplifting scenes in Never Give a Sucker an 
Even Break found him, with his niece, Gloria Jean, drinking a 
whitish fluid in a saloon. Fields, with a look of belligerent ease, 
was hunched against the wood, his arresting nose not far from the 
slender fire of a brass cigar lighter. 

"What kind of goat's milk is it, Uncle Bill?" asked the admiring 
tot. 

"Nanny goat's milk, my dear," replied her old uncle, and as he 
breathed into the lighter a two-foot blue flame leaped out across 
the bar. 

When he was approached about the straight part of Wilkins 
Micawber, in David Copper field, Fields was charmed. He assured 
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which made the picture, that he loved 
straight parts, and he enthusiastically signed a contract which 
required him to speak with an English accent. Later on, thinking 
the part over, he announced that, as Micawber, he believed he 
would do some juggling. Horrified, the studio heads vetoed the 
idea at once. 

"Dickens made no mention of juggling in David Copperfield" 
one of them said coldly. 



"He probably forgot it," Fields replied. Finding the producers 
adamant, he suggested a happy alternative : he would substitute 
an act in which he performed at a pool table and told an anecdote 
about snakes. He thought it would work in rather neatly follow- 
ing the funeral of Copperfield's mother. 

Metro, to his indignation, still preferred the Dickens version, 
and he sulked for weeks. When the shooting began, his English 
accent turned out to be pure Fields, a high nasal mutter loaded 
with pretentious articulation. The studio railed in vain. 

"My father was an Englishman, and I got this accent from 
him," he kept saying. "Are you trying to go against nature?" 



CHAPTER TWO 



I 



t was often difficult to trap Fields into telling the 
truth, but his father was, as he had said, an Englishman — James 
Dukinfield, a London cockney, whose family had emigrated to 
this country in the late 1870s. He settled in the Germantown 
district of Philadelphia and married a neighbor's daughter, Kate 
Felton. Their first child, William Claude, who later changed his 
name to W. G. Fields for professional reasons, was born on April 
9, 1879. Both the Dukinfields and the Feltons were poor, and 
Dukinfield had to scramble to make a living. After weighing 
several professions, he invested in an elderly horse named White 
Swan and began to hawk vegetables and fruit. Years afterward, 
Fields was to give various accounts of his ancestry. He told an 
interviewer for a high school paper that both his father and his 
mother had suffered from leprosy, a blatant falsehood. During 
one period he maintained, seriously, that his grandfather had in- 
vented a process for making imitation tortoise-shell combs, and, 
in attempting to come to America, had been shipwrecked off 
Glen Cove, Long Island. For years he attributed his artistic talent 
to a powerful theatrical strain in the family — an uncle, he said, 
had been a popular Swiss bell ringer at Elks' smokers and 
chowder parties. "I've got the theater in my blood," Fields used 
to say. 

8 



The Dukinfield household was dedicated to making ends meet, 
and there are grounds for the belief that Fields was dangerously 
bored by the time he was four. The family recreation consisted of 
listening to Mr. Dukinfield sing sentimental and religious songs, 
after he'd had a couple of beers. His favorites were "The Little 
Green Leaf in the Bible," "Annie Laurie," and "Oh, Genevieve," 
all of which Fields detested to his dying day. In fact, he worked 
up a strong fixation about vocal music, and would absent himself 
from any locality in which he believed song threatened. One of 
his mistresses, toward the end of his life, handled domestic spats 
by locking herself in his bathroom and singing at the top of her 
notable voice. Fields would howl piteously, beat on the walls with 
a cane, and threaten to burn the house down with her in it. He 
went to the length, on one occasion, of firing some newspapers 
and holding them in such a way that the smoke curled under her 
door. She emerged, but she continued to sing till she reached the 
street, and Fields later conceded her a moral victory. "The girl's 
got guts," he told several friends. 

The elder Dukinfield, who annoyed Fields from the start by 
dropping his h's, was occasionally jolly around the house, but he 
was prey to fits of tyranny. He was an ardent devotee of the 
quick, disciplinary blow, leaning slightly to backhanders. He got 
to the point where he was punctuating sentences by whacking 
Fields. Dukinfield was missing the little finger of his left hand — a 
deletion he attributed to the Crimean War — and a backward 
cuff with that hand was, according to Fields, uncommonly pain- 
ful. Though a good, loyal American, the father had monarchic 
sympathies. He was not entirely ready to accept the Revolution. 
"Would the King be proud of that?" he'd bawl at the boy, and 
administer a clout to remind him of his duty. Without doubt, 
Dukinfield would have been aghast to learn that, some years 
hence, his son would be chatting companionably with an admir- 
ing Edward VII. 



W . C. Fields 

Fields' mother, the former Miss Felton, was a hard-working 
housewife with an exceptional measure of native shrewdness. Her 
family for some generations had been occupied in the hauling 
line. From her, Fields borrowed much of his vigilance as well as 
the muttered asides that were later to convulse audiences. Mrs. 
Dukinfield had a habit of standing in her doorway and con- 
versing with passers-by, meanwhile damning them in asides to 
her family. After the people had gone, she would mimic them 
with great comic skill. Fields studied these monologues. Years 
later, when he was starring in the stage play Poppy, he invited 
her to New York and established her in a box at the theater. 
"How'd you like my work, Mother?" he asked in his dressing 
room following the final curtain. Her answer was, "I didn't know 
you had such a good memory." Fields always said that he seldom 
knew whether his mother was being naive or cute. Once, not 
long after he had brought her to see Poppy he was telling her 
about his travels among various aborigines, and he said of one 
tribe, "They invited me to dinner — a very excellent repast, start- 
ing off with whale." 

"Goodness!" exclaimed Mrs. Dukinfield. "I should think that 
would make a meal in itself." 

Mrs. Dukinfield and her husband addressed their son as 
"Claude," a name he was unable to stomach throughout his life. 
He was continually trying to use the name Claude for villainous 
characters in his plays and movies. As a boy, he preferred to be 
known as "Whitey," a nickname the children of the neighbor- 
hood gave him in recognition of his pale blond hair. Fields once 
petitioned his father to forget Claude and have the name changed 
legally to Whitey, but he received a moderate beating for his 
pains. In the ten years following his birth, the Dukinfields had two 
additional sons, Le Roy and Walter, and two daughters, Elsie 
Mae and Adele. From time to time, in his movies, Fields was to 

10 



take note of these names. For instance, Fields felt that his young 
sisters were annoyingly consecrated to marathon eating; in The 
Bank Dick he conceived the name "Elsie Mae Adele Brunch 
Souse," for the character of his small daughter. It was a coin- 
cidence, he said, that in the course of the story he tried to brain 
her with a concrete urn. Toward the end of his life Fields began 
to sign dispatches to his most intimate friends, such as Gene 
Fowler, the writer, and Gregory La Cava, the director, with 
"Whitey Dukinfield." 

In one of these, some notes that he wrote out for Fowler, Fields 
reminisced about the Philadelphia of his childhood : "The trolley- 
car parties or trolley rides took the place of the old hayrides in 
the summertime. A party would get together, engage an open 
trolley car, and adorn it with bunting. Noise ran rampant; the 
occupants would blow horns and make noises with rattles, and the 
smart alecks would make smart cracks at the ghillies who stood 
on the corners or passed with their girls. Some would even make 
bad noises with their mouths. 

"Philadelphians were fond of riding on cars or trains and sing- 
ing — not that they ever produced any outstanding singer that I 
can remember. They would arrange parties, leave Philadelphia 
about 5:30 p.m. on either the Pennsylvania or Reading Railroad 
for dinner ( 'supper' they called it, the midday repast was referred 
to as 'dinner'). They would proceed on a private car to New 
York, see a show — probably Maurice Barrymore — and return to 
Philadelphia, everything included for a round sum. One of the 
swankiest things to do was dine at the Reading Railway Terminal 
or the Pennsylvania Station dining room in New York, same as 
people in Los Angeles a few years ago would drive to San Ber- 
nardino, a distance of seventy-five miles, to get a full-sized 
smidgeon of corned-beef hash." 

In another reminiscence, also for Fowler, Fields touched on the 

11 



W. C. Fields 

saloon and bawdy-house situation in his home town. He later 
apologized for the sketchiness of these references, ascribing it to 
his extreme youth. "Saloons in Philadelphia," he said, "were 
closed at twelve o'clock Saturday night and opened at one minute 
past midnight on Sunday. There were queues formed at nearly all 
the leading ones, which did a thriving business until the early 
hours Monday morning. Saturday night the saloons did a fine 
bottle business. 

"Of course we had notch (nautch) joints all over the city and 
there were many reformers who wanted to blot them out alto- 
gether, others who wanted to have them concentrated in a cer- 
tain section of the city. A fellow was afraid to whistle for his dog 
after nine o'clock at night, for fear of being hit on the sconce 
with a heavy door key. The low-ceiling price bazaar for sexual 
relief was a street called Middie Alley. You could barely get a 
pushcart through this avenue. Top price — twenty-five cents." 

Fields enjoyed talking about early Philadelphia, partly, his 
friends suspected, because he liked to demonstrate his phenomenal 
memory. When in good form, he would rattle off long lists of 
stray information, such as the fact that Philadelphians called 
merry-go-rounds "hobbyhorses"; that they called peanuts 
"ground nuts" ; that small restaurants were called "oyster houses" 
or "oyster saloons" (though they sold no liquor) ; that Sunday 
entertainment was limited to band concerts at Willow Grove and 
Strawberry Mansion in Fairmount Park; that firecrackers were 
known as "shooting crackers," and that the city was known for 
Philadelphia Pepper Pot, Philadelphia scrapple, sticky-bottom 
cinnamon buns, and "Scotch cake," a flat cake an eighth of an 
inch thick and six inches in diameter, upon which Fields claimed 
to have broken several teeth in his fledgling years. 

On one occasion Fowler's secretary took a secret shorthand 
record of Fields' nostalgic comments. They went as follows: 

12 



"Well, sir, I remember those boat races on the Schuylkill — the 
river ran right through town. People used to ask what to see in 
Philadelphia and somebody would say, 'It's the greatest cemetery 
in the world.' Everything in town was run by contractors, nobody 
made a dime. The gas company sold out to a new electric com- 
pany and we had electric lights. Well, the people decided this was 
a mistake, so damned if they didn't get a lot of old guns and 
pistols and swords and charge down to the City Hall yelling about 
how they wanted gas back. The charge was repulsed. 

"Every year, you know, the city would allot so much money 
toward hoisting the statue of William Penn up onto the City Hall. 
Finally they got him up there, but they turned his tail end south 
and had him looking north. Well, the people on the south side 
set up a hell of a howl. There was a big fight. I was born on the 
north side, but I didn't care one way or the other — he looked just 
the same to me, both sides. 

"Great town for breweries. These all had saloons in conjunc- 
tion with them, owned and operated them that way, you see. 

"Then there were those old-fashioned two-horse streetcars. 
They also had a man who helped pull the cars uphill. He sat on 
his horse, put a line on the cars, and with the other two horses 
took them up the hill. I remember one guy in particular, man 
named Stink Reese. He was a little runt, but everybody respected 
him because of his position and because he carried a whip. Mean, 
too — if he didn't like a driver he wouldn't help him uphill. They 
had cable cars on Market Street. 

"Gilmore and Sousa were the bands that played in Willow 
Grove Park. There was a place called Lemon Hill Mansion, a 
tower with a circular staircase ; get up there and see all around, 
maybe up to the City Hall in Germantown. The topic of conver- 
sation day in and day out was, 'We're up as high as William 
Penn's feet.' 

i3 



W. C. Fields 

"Everybody sat in the kitchen in the wintertime. It was so 
god-damned cold in the rest of the house you couldn't stand it. 
The kitchen was the only place with any heat. We used to make 
snowballs, dip them in some kind of flavoring, and have a party. 
There sure was lots of snow. One year we had a blizzard there, a 
big one. It went over the horses' heads. It was quite a thing to see 
the snowplow coming, and we'd go knock on the neighbors' doors 
and tell them it was coming. It had twelve horses." 

Fowler: "That's very interesting, Willie. Thanks a lot." 

Fields: "You're welcome, my boy." 



Thus the Philadelphia of Fields' youth — a city then, as now, 
of high moral indignation and average morals. 

As a small boy Fields was sensitive, mulish, humorous and 
independent. He was of medium size but possessed of uncommon 
constitutional and muscular strength. Because he also had an 
excess of both daring and aggressiveness, he held sway over all 
the other neighborhood children of his age, many of whom were 
a head taller than he. There were two girls in the group, Fields 
recalled later, who were grown far beyond their years. He had 
trouble, he said, whipping them without using a club. The best 
sources agree that Fields probably did have trouble with preco- 
cious girls ; his shows were crowded with mentions of savage vic- 
tories over the opposite sex. "You remember the time I knocked 
Waterfront Nell down?" he asked a fellow bartender in My Little 
Chickadee, and when the man replied, with some heat, "Why, 
you didn't knock her down — / did," Fields said, "Well, I started 
kicking her first." Among the children of both sexes he was known 

*4 



for isolated, meaningless acts of bravura ; once he climbed a fifty- 
foot sandhopper and jumped off into a sandpile, the impact driv- 
ing his knees into his eyes and blacking them vividly. His 
companions, one by one, climbed the hopper and stared at the 
ground, but they climbed back down and went home, while 
Fields stood carelessly by, massaging his eyes with a handkerchief. 
Almost from the time he began to talk, he spoke in the extrav- 
agant nasal drawl with which he was to become identified. This 
was substantially a gift from his father, who advertised his wares 
in a similar tone while following White Swan on the grocery 
route. 

Dukinfield was a great believer in all the known adages about 
idleness, as they applied to others. He took energetic measures to 
prevent the boy Claude's mind from becoming a devil's workshop. 
As soon as Fields was able to walk comfortably, the father took 
him along on the hawking tours. In after life, Fields always said 
he felt "undignified as a three-year-old apprentice in the coster- 
monger trade." For one thing, his father's adenoidal cry, minus 
the h's, struck him as ludicrous. When the boy was called upon, a 
year or two later, to take up the chant, he applied himself mainly 
to burlesqueing his father. This led to friction. Fields also had 
a habit of publicizing vegetables the cart didn't carry, simply 
because the names pleased him. "Rutabagas, pomegranates, 
calabashes," he would yell, and the housewives would flock to his 
side. Dukinfield would explain that his son was new on the job 
and then cuff him as they bounced down the road. 

Fields' schooling was brief — a circumstance that bothered him 
all his life. By adulthood he recognized this questionable lack in 
his equipment, and he set out, with characteristic zeal, to over- 
come it. He bought, among other books, whole sets of Dickens, 
Thackeray and Stevenson, and read them all. His taste, he once 
said in discussing this period, was principally for funny characters, 

'5 



W. C. Fields 

but he also struggled manfully with the most bilious of the Eng- 
lish romanticists. Fields remarked to a friend that he was "prob- 
ably one of the few people outside an institution who can outline 
the various plots of Silas Marner" In his avidness to learn he re- 
membered everything. Producers at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who 
had forcibly restrained him from juggling in David Copper field, 
were amazed to learn, during a subsequent illness of Fields, that, 
while delirious, he had quoted Micawber's speeches by the page. 

A synthesis of Fields' declarations about his schooling places the 
length of his attendance at about four years. The figure may be 
a little high. One of his relatives believes that he turned up for 
school one Monday in the autumn of his sixth year but that he 
lasted till only around noon. He never went back, the relative says. 
There were indications that he found the classroom cramped and 
the teacher's manner inadequate. Fields once told an actor that 
he had taught himself to read, but he added that he had also 
gone to school for four years. Then he eyed the man belligerently, 
determined to let him make what he could of the muddle. An- 
other of Fields' relatives says that his first scholastic stint did, in 
truth, last one day but that he returned, from time to time, for 
further tries. Everyone agrees that, despite his father's unsatisfac- 
tory pronunciation, he preferred a life with turnips and beets to 
the regimentation of school. 

One afternoon when he was nine, Fields sneaked into the gal- 
lery of a vaudeville house and watched a performance of the Byrne 
Brothers, jugglers. He was electrified. He ran home and, with 
several lemons and oranges lifted from the cart, set up shop in the 
stable. Juggling, he found, was a perverse enterprise. "By the 
time I could keep two objects going, I'd ruined forty dollars' 
worth of fruit," he told a friend later. Fields' homework with the 
fruit opened new vistas of discord between him and his father. 
Their mutual disapproval ripened fast. Dukinfield would crouch 

16 



in the stable, then, if he caught the boy bruising lemons, he would 
prance out and give him a hiding. A crisis was reached not long 
after Fields' eleventh birthday. He had left a small shovel lying 
in the front yard, and Dukinfield stepped on it. The handle flew 
up and banged him on the shin. Unfortunately, the father had 
barked the same shin earlier that day on a hubcap of the vegetable 
cart. He hopped around on one leg awhile, cursing, then, seeing 
Fields studying him in a detached sort of way, he picked up the 
shovel and rattled it off the boy's head. During the next few days 
Fields devoted himself to getting even. He said afterward that he 
rejected several plans certain to arouse the interest of the coroner 
and settled on a simple but effective reprisal. Holding a large 
wooden box poised aloft, he hid in the stable. His father came in, 
looking for trouble. Fields crowned him. Then he walked off 
down the road and never returned. 



n 



CHAPTER THREE 



T 



.he first night of Fields' exodus he slept in a hole 
in the ground — a "bunk," covered over with boards and dug by his 
gang — in a field a mile from home. It was tolerably comfortable, 
as accommodations of this sort went, but toward morning the rain 
came down and the bunk began to leak pretty freely. By morning 
it had most of the earmarks of a hog wallow, and Fields began 
to be sorry he had left. When the sun rose over the treetops, 
he climbed out, after a couple of false starts, scraped off the top- 
soil, and lay down in the grass to dry off. He felt creaky and 
rheumatic, he said later, but the sun soon revived his prejudice 
against being hit with shovels. And now a new worry came up — 
he was hungry. After a while he crawled over behind some bushes 
near the road and awaited developments. Around nine o'clock a 
colleague known by the affectionate name of "Pot-head" Ed- 
wards came along on his way to school. Fields called hoarsely 
from the shrubs, explained his plight, and invoked aid. It was not 
long forthcoming. As they took their meals, the fugitive's friends, 
like Pip supplying the convict in Great Expectations, secreted 
a bun here and a parsnip there, and made for the bunk as soon 
as they escaped surveillance. They looked up to Fields. They were 
proud of his indifference to authority. 

18 



Fields' family made little more than a token search. His mother 
felt that, at eleven, he was young to set up on his own, but the 
problems of four other children diverted her mind. The attitude 
of Fields' father could perhaps be summed up by the handy 
phrase "good riddance." He took the stand that a boy careless 
with small shovels would likely grow up to be careless with large 
shovels, and that such a person was a menace. He trained another 
of his offspring to help out on the cart. For years thence neither 
Dukinfield nor his wife knew where their son had gone. Mean- 
while, the boy had begun to enjoy himself. There being no other 
place available at the moment, he tightened the bunk's defenses 
against weather, stole a quilt off a neighbor's line, and bought 
some candles with a dime he had borrowed from an admirer. 
At the same time, his friends continued to bring food. Adequately 
housed, well stoked, and having no connection with vegetables 
and fruit save as consumer, Fields felt at peace for the first time 
in years. 

The idyll was short-lived. The day he had fled, in March, was 
balmy for that season. Less than a week later the weather turned 
surly, and he found the quilt insufficient. To heat things up, he 
made a small bonfire in one corner of the bunk, but it caused such 
a smudge and hurt his eyes so badly that he covered it with mud. 
He spent one night wrapped in the quilt and huddled over a 
candle. When he surfaced the next morning it was snowing 
briskly. About this time, the participants in his food lift gave up, 
for the most part. The novelty had worn off, and several of them, 
caught greasy-handed, had been soundly trounced. Their loyalty 
to Fields was solid, but it fell short of corporal punishment. The 
time had come, Fields felt, to move into a better neighborhood. 
He discovered that it was a period in which the kind of housing 
he sought — free and removed from the scrutiny of police — was 
extraordinarily scarce. The only possibility, he found as he went 

19 



W. C. Fields 

over the ground, was another spa of his fellows, the Orlando 
Social Club, a benevolent group similar to the Innapenent Order 
of Infadelaty, which was organized some years later by Penrod 
Schofield and Sam Williams. The club had its headquarters over 
the shop of a compliant blacksmith named Wheeler. It was an 
informal room, suitable for the development of spartanism. The 
roof was patchy and the walls had been carelessly joined; the 
furniture included a three-legged table and five empty beer kegs. 
Into this new apartment Fields moved with his quilt, a can of pork 
and beans, and a resolve to face the future without flinching. His 
subterranean stint had given him the social outlook of a mole, 
he subsequently said ; for several days life above ground made him 
feel like an impostor. Long before he was used to it, he was 
starving again, and he embarked on a career of petty crime. 

There can be no doubt, in view of the evidence at hand, that 
Fields may now be regarded as Philadelphia's most distinguished 
vagrant since Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, at least by his own 
account, toiled in the path of righteousness; Fields, by his, com- 
mitted every misdemeanor and small felony on the city's books. 
Though shy about his schooling, Fields was often voluble about 
things that he considered undamaging to his character, such as 
trespassing, theft and imprisonment. Throughout his life he 
heaped accounts of these triumphs on both his friends and his 
interviewers. One time he was chatting with Alva Johnston, who 
wrote masterly pieces about him for The New Yorker and the 
Saturday Evening Post, and several friends at Dave Chasen's 
restaurant in Hollywood. After describing a number of censor- 
able adventures, Fields began a windy account of what he char- 
acterized as "one of the most romantic episodes of my life." It 
took place in the Solomon Islands, during a professional visit he'd 
made there. 

"I had this Melanesian belle, a comely-looking lass," he said. 

20 



"and I was headed for the shrubbery, which grows very lush in 
those parts. Well, her husband was following along behind hold- 
ing a forefinger up in the air and crying, 'One dollah, one 
dollah!'" 

The anecdote continued its ribald course, and when it was 
finished, Johnston had to leave. 

As soon as he was gone, one of Fields' companions said, "Bill, 
you're a damned fool to talk like that to a man who's about to 
write you up. You ought to be more circumspect." 

"Circumspect, hell!" Fields cried. "I don't care how black he 
paints me." 

During his Orlando Social Club, or early larcenous, phase, 
Fields was anything but circumspect. The urge for self-preserva- 
tion is strong in the human, and Fields, though he suffered, had 
every intention of surviving. He began by lifting commodities off 
such carts as ventured out in the still- winter weather. "Good 
morning, Mr. Giovanni," he'd cry, and after an exchange of 
amenities the man would drive off the poorer by three tomatoes. 
Because of Fields' work with the lemons, his fingers were prac- 
ticed and nimble ; also, he knew his way around a vegetable cart. 
As time went on he became painfully familiar to many cart 
drivers, who would slash at their horses when they saw him 
coming. On his pilfering sorties, Fields wore a loose-fitting blouse, 
which he filled as he made his rounds. After a while vegetables 
palled on him, as vegetables will, and his mind turned to thoughts 
of a balanced diet. He worked up a device to obtain protein, but 
it involved traveling to an obscure part of town. With his face 
fixed in a timorous smirk, he would enter a butcher's and say, 
"Mama sent me for three pork chops." When the butcher pro- 
duced these from the icebox, the boy would add, "Oh, yes, and a 
pound of bacon." Then, as the butcher turned away, Fields 
would grab the chops and fly. Relating his adventures, in the 

21 



W. C. Fields 

years to come, Fields always apologized for the unimaginative 
quality of his meat thefts. He preferred to dwell on a system he 
devised for robbing Chinamen. Because he lived in the head- 
quarters of a populous club, his whereabouts became known to all 
the members, and he enlisted their aid on occasion. A popular 
sport, conceived by Fields during a night when the smithy rats 
were making things too warm for sleep, involved the use of one 
confederate. The friend would stand on a streetcar track in front 
of a laundry, and an oncoming car would set up a peevish clangs 
ing. When the noise was sufficient to drown out the Chinaman's 
bell, Fields would dash in and clean out his till. The system was 
nearly perfect, since immigrant Chinamen then spoke little Eng- 
lish and few Philadelphia police were well grounded in Chinese. 
A fast boy could manage a neat start, and Fields was uncom- 
monly fleet. 

In the daytime, Wheeler's forge kept the barn warm, but to- 
ward midnight a chill settled on the Orlando Social Club. Fields 
spent the first few nights sleeping on the floor, then he removed 
a door and padded one side with burlap. As a bed, it had short- 
comings, but it was, he felt, softer and much cleaner than any- 
thing available in the brotherhood's country place. So severe 
were the frequent cold snaps that Fields often strayed from the 
forge to seek shelter elsewhere. For a while he was lodged in a 
livery stable, occupying a Percheron's bran trough. He spent one 
cramped month in a barrel. A bartender let him sleep a few nights 
in a heated saloon ; his bed was a stack of newspapers on the floor 
of a toilet. This reservation was canceled by the saloon owner, who 
became fretful about the authorities. "The kid's in there drinking 
whisky all night," he told the bartender. "They'll close us up." 
Fields always denied this stoutly. The truth is that he never 
touched alcohol in this period, though his public utterances on the 
subject were afterward frivolous. "I never drank anything 

22 



stronger than beer before I was twelve," he liked to tell the press. 

The boy spent several nights sleeping in a cellar which had a 
convenient, punched-out window. He would kneel outside until 
the owner had banked the fire, then crawl through and nest in a 
woodbox near the furnace. These were comfortable quarters, and 
he was chagrined when the window was suddenly boarded up. 
He finally deduced that the repairs were somehow connected 
with his systematic abstraction of the housewife's preserves. "The 
thing taught me a lesson," he once told a friend. "You've got to 
know where to stop." 

Despite his occasional nights out, Fields stuck, for the most 
part, close to the social club. He arose many mornings so stiff he 
could scarcely muster the agility to steal. One of his chief methods 
of thawing out was to sit with his back against a board fence. He 
found that when the sun came up, boards absorbed heat quickly 
and transmitted it pleasurably to his back. Fields conceived a 
fondness for high board fences that he never lost. Years after- 
ward, during his travels, he was likely to spot a fence and sneak 
off to warm himself luxuriously. Also, he acquired a sharp fixa- 
tion about beds. His principal aim, he said, was to reach a station 
in life in which he could sleep between clean sheets every night 
of the year. "To this day," he told an interviewer late in life, 
"when I climb in between clean sheets, I smile. When I get into 
bed and stretch out — god damn, that's a sensation!" 

Fields' offhand larceny inevitably led him into trouble. The 
Philadelphia police came to regard him as a one-child crime wave. 
He was frequently seized and flung into jail, but always, he main- 
tained, for something of which he was innocent. "They never 
got me for the right offense," he liked to say. In jail, he gave what- 
ever name came handiest at the time and so patently enjoyed the 
city's bounty that he was usually released without delay. Notwith- 
standing his enjoyment, he complained bitterly about his couch, 

23 



W. C. Fields 

the menu, and the service, and hurt his warders' feelings. They 
viewed him as a corrupting influence on the other tenants and 
were glad to get rid of him. During one time of frequent jailings, 
Fields temporarily gave up stealing and subsisted on the free lunch 
in saloons. He would swagger in, buy ginger ale with a nickel he'd 
panhandled, and visit the free-lunch cage. The meal he managed 
to make in a few minutes' time, from hard-boiled eggs, pickled 
herring, cheese, bologna, liverwurst, onions and similar staples, 
was worth several times the price of his drink. Bartenders began 
to share the official police view of Fields ; he had to distribute his 
patronage widely to avoid ejections. 

The deeper he settled into his vagabondage, the higher he 
rose socially. Among the members of the Orlando group his 
prestige was unapproached. This kind of deference would turn 
the heads of most children, and it turned the head of Fields. He 
became downright snobbish. Amidst his contemporaries his atti- 
tude was lordly, and he was condescending to the blacksmith. His 
manner suggested that he did not wholly condemn toil but that it 
placed a barrier between him and Wheeler. His address in the 
smithy took on overtones of "My man" and "My good fellow." 
In these years Fields developed a grandiose air, shot through 
with fraud, that stuck with him like a plaster. He once said that 
his pre-eminence was gratifying, though it had drawbacks. Boys 
for miles around, envious of his glitter and easy ways, sought to 
devaluate him physically. He was beaten up several times a week. 
Representatives of other districts would waste a day's travel for 
the privilege of licking him. Nothing altered the fact that he stole 
for a living and was regularly jailed. Off and on during his life, 
Fields corresponded with a few of his boyhood friends. One is 
now a Philadelphia stone mason ; another has succeeded to own- 
ership of the family bakery, from which edibles once found their 
way into the fugitive's bunk. 

24 



The quality of freedom is never absolute, and Fields paid vari- 
ously for his escape. Among other things, because of exposure, 
he suffered almost continuously from colds. His voice cracked, 
hoarsened, mellowed and re-formed on a note of permanent 
rasp. In a backward child this could have proved tragic ; in Fields 
it seemed to complement his new demeanor. Neither he nor his 
companions knew it, but a national character was beginning to 
take shape. As a result of the beatings, his nose bloomed far be- 
yond the ordinary. It was reduced to pulp so often that, in gaining 
scar tissue, it rapidly added dimension. Fields was right when, in 
reminiscing about his nose, he absolved whisky from part of the 
guilt. From his middle age onward he became aggressively sensi- 
tive about his nose. He sometimes resented whimsical allusions to 
it by his most cherished friends. One time, while on a deep-sea 
fishing trip with Gene Fowler and some others, Fields sat in a 
boat's stern for hours beneath a broiling sun. His nose, always 
tender, lit up like a Chinese lantern. Suddenly, Fowler says, he 
heard a popping sound, and he cried, "Uncle Willie's nose has ex- 
ploded!" Fields was wounded; he went below and sulked until 
they reached shore. Later on he telephoned Fowler and said, 
"Who all have you told that damned story to?" 

"Why, I don't know," Fowler said. "Everybody, I think." 
Fields cursed him vigorously. "You ought to be ashamed of 
yourself," he said at last. "You're making fun of an unfortunate 
man with an affliction." He calmed down when Fowler promised 
to call all the people he'd talked to and retract the news about 
Fields' nose exploding. 



25 



CHAPTER FOUR 



T 

JLm 



he second winter after his departure Fields en- 
tered upon a time which was forever afterward distasteful to him. 
He tried to forget it. In interviews he skirted it nimbly, allowing 
his hobo triumphs to stand intact and untarnished. Only a hand- 
ful of persons — relatives for the most part — knew his dreadful 
secret. The regrettable truth is, however, that for a space he back- 
slid in a rather shocking manner. After one spirited dip of the 
temperature, during which Wheeler closed the forge and mut- 
tered vaguely about moving to Georgia, Fields went to live with 
his maternal grandmother. It is to be presumed that she in- 
formed the boy's parents of his whereabouts, but they made no 
recorded attempt to recover him. Persons close to the situation 
believe that, in the two years, they had made adjustments. 

His cushioned residence was only a part of the compromise 
that Fields eventually came to regard as infamous. He accepted 
employment. His grandmother was opposed to children stealing 
for a living, and she said so, in robust language. Under her tute- 
lage he got a job as "cash boy" at Strawbridge & Clothier's De- 
partment Store. His duties consisted of sprinting back and forth 
between departments, holding a leather cup containing change. 
He suffered terribly, according to one of the few friends he later 

26 



took into his confidence concerning this low point in his affairs. 
"I had trouble passing the exits with the change box," Fields 
said. "Sometimes, without thinking, I'd go out one revolving door 
and come back in another. It was a difficult time for a self- 
respecting thief." 

Like Huckleberry Finn at the Widow Douglas's, Fields made 
an honest effort to become civilized, but, as Twain's hero said, "it 
was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal 
regular and decent the widow was in all her ways." Fields got 
fidgety in the evenings ; occasionally he slipped out and went to a 
saloon. The garnering of fifty cents' worth of free lunch for a 
nickel ginger ale usually put him right — it restored his faith in 
himself. During this season of his employment he was aware of 
a basic anxiety that hung over him like a thundercloud. He felt 
that his fingers, despite the free lunch, were apt to grow rusty 
through the interruption of his stealing. In his spare moments he 
again took up juggling, which had been a latent passion with 
him since his visit to the Byrne Brothers. In his grandmother's 
back yard, in barns, in stables, in any place where he might 
work in peace, he kept the objects flying. Cut off as he was from 
Dukinfield's supply of spherical edibles, he sought other things 
to juggle. On Sundays he hung around the municipal tennis 
courts. When a ball sailed over the backstop, Fields grabbed it 
and ran. He begged cigar boxes from tobacconists, he lifted 
croquet balls from quiet lawns, he borrowed Indian clubs from 
gymnasiums, and he dug utensils out of scrap heaps. It was price- 
less training, for he was learning to juggle objects of every possible 
shape. Through the dark hours of his regeneration, his practice 
never flagged. 

There came a day at the beginning of the spring thaws when 
Fields' grandmother recognized the inevitable truth — the job 
was too big; the boy couldn't be civilized. They parted, on 

27 



W. C. Fields 

amicable terms, and Fields returned to the gutters. He was free 
once more, but soft living had left its mark. Again as in the case 
of Finn, "I liked the old ways best, but I was getting so I liked 
the news ones, too, a little bit." Fields had been making two dol- 
lars a week at Strawbridge & Clothier's, and though they offered 
to raise him to two-fifty, he decided to better himself. Also, he was 
looking for something a little less formal, a little less stigmatized. 
His first employment after leaving the store involved racking balls 
in a pool hall. It was congenial work and offered, besides a bed 
on a table, a chance to juggle billiard balls in the evenings. This 
was a significant connection for Fields. He found himself study- 
ing the absurd, solemn mannerisms of pool-hall habitues, those 
tense, pale victims of a hard, ancestral rite. He observed the cau- 
tious choosing of the cue, the inelastic placement of the chalk, the 
hush before the fateful shot, the low aside. In general, this all 
struck him as perhaps the funniest thing he had ever seen, and 
he stored it up for future reference. 

History has no record of pool-hall employees who were not 
experts at the game. By practicing on idle tables, Fields became, 
in the professional phrase, a "shark." He got so good that he 
began to represent the house in matches against customers looking 
for sport. Also, he made, by betting, a fair amount of money on 
the side. He was adept at the ancient poolroom trick of playing 
badly for a game or two, then hiking the bet to a plushy level and 
turning on his best form. This sort of artifice, though common, 
is looked upon as unethical in the best billiard circles, and Fields 
was frequently thrashed. Because of his long experience with 
colds, he found the ever-present chalk dust of the establishment 
a source of annoyance, and he at last resigned, fearful of con- 
tracting silicosis. Before he left, however, he conceived a love for 
the game that he never got over. In his after years, when he lived 
in big houses, Fields always had an expensive pool table, generally 

28 



in the living room. He used it not only for recreation but to pro- 
mote rest during periods of insomnia. As a ball racker, he had 
taken a fancy to the pool table for sleeping purposes, and he often 
turned back to it in his later, wealthier days. 

At the conclusion of his billiard phase, Fields planned his next 
move very carefully. Although his life at this stage appeared aim- 
less, he was beginning to exhibit the foresight that later charac- 
terized all his actions. "There is very little luck," he was to write 
a lady friend fifty years thence. "Almost everything must be 
thought out." His objective, in the professional line, was a job 
which left him plenty of leisure time in which to juggle. In addi- 
tion, since it was now summer, he wanted something moderately 
cool. Finally, he preferred a position that would excite the envy 
of the young. He thought it out and luck was with him. Within 
a week he was signed on as assistant to a man named Gomer 
Wheatley, who drove an ice wagon. Fields was first attracted to 
this employment while reading an ad in a newspaper. Struck 
by the name "Gomer Wheatley," which was in ten-point type, 
he was compelled to read the eight-point text it accompanied. 
Wheatley said the run took only a few hours, neglecting to add 
that it started around 3 a.m., at which time there was a minimum 
of shrinkage. At the outset, Fields was appalled, but he was case- 
hardened and got used to it. Wheatley was keenly interested in 
juggling. He pressed his helper to teach him a few tricks. Of 
this venture Fields later wrote an acquaintance, "I did my best, 
but I could only teach him how to juggle his accounts." 

The partners enjoyed themselves. Wheatley had a leisurely bay 
horse, and he was a fairly leisurely man himself. He and his as- 
sistant took turns filling the orders, as the horse clumped idly 
down the darkened streets. It was a summer of good weather; 
Fields had chosen wisely. The cicadas sang in the trees, the night 
wind was fresh and cool, dogs complained sleepily, without mean- 

29 



W. C. Fields 

ing anything in particular, and an occasional light showed where 
somebody had a wakeful baby or an early job. Just before day- 
light the birds arose with a noisy clatter, and not long afterward 
the first children began to chase the wagon. In general, Fields 
took care of the twenty-five-pound and fifty-pound cakes, and 
Wheatley carried the others. On especially heavy orders, for stores 
or restaurants, they worked together, each taking a handle of the 
prongs. Mostly, a proprietor would give them a little something 
at times like these — a sandwich, some cookies, a bottle of Bevo. 
As salary, Fields was getting three dollars and fifty cents a week 
and all the ice he could eat ; he made out comfortably. He had a 
room over a tailor shop. It cost him five dollars a month. 

Each morning the job was finished by ten. Then they would 
visit some bartender customer who was getting the free lunch 
ready for the day. Wheatley would buy beer, Fields ginger ale, 
and they would eat their fill of the lunch. Fields took all of his 
meals in saloons that summer ; late that summer, too, he switched 
from soft drinks to beer. In the afternoons he juggled steadily. It 
had become an obsession with him. Around this time he had 
begun to know that he had an extraordinary talent and that a 
career awaited him. But he was in a hurry. The grim and dedi- 
cated aspect of his practice was awe-inspiring to boys who came 
to watch him. He refused all temptations to be distracted. Many 
days he persisted until time to go on the ice route. Years later, 
discussing this with a fellow worker at Paramount, for which he 
was making The Big Broadcast of 1938, Fields said, "I still carry 
scars on my legs from those early attempts at juggling. I'd balance 
a stick on my toe, toss it into the air, and try to catch it again on 
my toe. Hour after hour the damned thing would bang against 
my shinbones. I'd work until tears were streaming down my face. 
But I kept on practicing, and bleeding, until I perfected the trick. 

30 



I don't believe that Mozart, Liszt, Paderewski, or Kreisler ever 
worked any harder than I did." In a few months he had mastered 
all the feats of the Byrne Brothers and, within the limits of his 
paraphernalia, had invented new ones. He was never satisfied ; he 
drove himself savagely. For a child of thirteen it was a demonstra- 
tion of almost superhuman will, and it marked the inner com- 
pulsion that separates the genius from the mediocrity. This inex- 
plicable fire is always a little frightening. 

In the autumn the ice business dwindled, and he and Wheatley 
reluctantly parted. Their time together had worked a tonic effect 
upon Fields. Many children would have found his early-morning 
stint onerous, but he felt that his life had become ordered at last. 
He had tucked away a rather neat nest cgg y of six dollars and fifty 
cents, and he had brought his juggling a long way since the 
Dukinfield lemons. Though jobless, alone, stung by weather, ill- 
clothed, badly fed, pursued by bullies and harried by the police, 
he faced the future with contentment. To guard his savings, he 
took, as a stopgap, a job selling papers on a busy corner down- 
town. He realized that this was a descent from the ice cart, but he 
dug in and made it go. Between sales he was able to work in vari- 
ous kinds of juggling, by folding the papers this way and that. 
Because of the running show he put on, he pushed his sales higher 
than those of nearly anybody in the district. He sold papers with 
an elan which has perhaps never been equaled in the news- 
hawking profession since then. "He had the flourish of a grand 
seigneur," says a relative who knew him in that period. "He had a 
trick of somehow handing out papers as though he were distribut- 
ing alms." Also, Fields was probably one of the first newsies to 
call out any details of the day's events. This practice became com- 
monplace in later years, though the majority of its exponents 
stuck pretty closely to the headlines. Fields handled things differ- 

3i 



W. C. Fields 

ently. He was beginning to develop a fascination for odd names, 
and he searched his wares through for catchy examples. As a 
result, his reports on the news showed, from a journalist's stand- 
point, poor editorial judgment. "Bronislaw Gimp acquires license 
for two-year-old sheep dog," he'd cry, and add, "Details on page 
26." Many citizens of Philadelphia bought his papers out of 
simple curiosity. 

Fields' revenue from the news business provided him with 
enough money to live on, and he regretfully gave up stealing. He 
had, he said, established an enviable record as an independent 
shoplifter, unbacked by either syndicates or kleptomania, and he 
understandably hated to throw away all he had built up. But he 
recognized that he was getting too old to continue ; the first flush 
of his speed was past and the police were likely to tuck him away 
for a long stretch. Although he actually went straight, Fields con- 
tended that he remained a thief at heart. His case in a way was 
similar to that of an elderly ballplayer, of whose unsuccessful 
attempt to steal a base Arthur "Bugs" Baer said, "He had larceny 
in his heart, but his feet were honest." All his life Fields bragged 
spaciously about his wayward youth. He made himself out to be 
somewhat more vicious than Fagin's shiftiest charges. Once, dur- 
ing an interview by a breathless girl reporter, he outlined a whole 
calendar of his youthful iniquities, and she said, "Tell me, Mr. 
Fields, now that you've become rich and famous, how do you 
feel about stealing and all that sort of thing?" "Young lady," said 
Fields, fixing her with a reproving stare, "there is nothing more 
contemptible than a thief." 

For a short period Fields became fed up with the bustle and 
roar of downtown news hawking, and he took a paper route in the 
suburbs. This turned out to be an injudicious decision. "In the 
words of my friend John Barrymore," he once said, "it was the 
winter of my discontent." The trouble could be laid to dogs. Fields 

32 



once estimated, after careful work with a pencil, that he was 
bitten on an average of every six houses. He added that the figures 
were misleading, since only one out of every five or six houses 
harbored a dog. Dogs would knock off their dinners, taking 
chances of losing bones to transients, and cross the street to bite 
him. They would detour around people vastly more substantial 
in order to fall upon the boy. Alva Johnston, in his profile on 
Fields in The New Yorker, offered what is undoubtedly the ac- 
curate explanation of this prejudicial treatment. "Fields can give 
the impression to men that he is a highly respectable fellow," 
Johnston said, "but he cannot give that impression to dogs. Once 
a tramp always a tramp, as far as dogs are concerned. Looking 
right through his fine clothes and synthetic dignity, they see the 
former hobo." 

Fields made a studied attempt to cultivate dogs, largely in the 
interest of self-preservation, but it failed miserably. He tried every 
known method to avoid irritating them. He let sleeping dogs lie, 
but they bit him during bad dreams. He ignored barking dogs, 
and they bit him in the middle of sentences. He found dogs with 
bad names consistently dangerous. Dogs picked on Fields through- 
out his life, but he never gave up hope of an understanding. One 
time, when he was in a California sanitarium and vastly bored, 
he read a newspaper item about a dog that had been "arrested" 
for drunkenness. The pet lived in the back end of a saloon and, 
prompted by some frantically whimsical customers, had fallen 
into careless habits. One evening, after the dog had been hitting it 
up, a customer, for a lark, called a patrolman, who led it off to 
jail. Fields phoned the saloon and expressed concern over the dog's 
plight. "Bring it out here to the sanitarium," he said to the 
saloon owner. "I want to enroll the poor fellow in Alcoholics 
Anonymous." When the owner and the dog arrived, several re- 
porters and a Life photographer were in attendance. After down- 

33 



W. C. Fields 

ing a highball, Fields lectured the dog sternly, while the reporters 
took notes and the photographer recorded the lesson for posterity. 
But the pictures never appeared in Life; Fields' illness had been 
so severe that he was unphotogenic. 

Later, when he recovered, the incident disturbed his sense of 
humanity. He arranged to have the dog adopted by some friends 
in the country. 



34 



CHAPTER FIVE 



F 

JLlEI 



ields enjoyed telling about his first juggling 
engagement. He said the episode prevented him from becoming 
a Methodist. He said further that it illustrated what could be 
bought in Philadelphia for fifteen cents in 1 89 1 . 

He and a boy he'd hired as stooge, Fields said, attended the 
annual outdoor strawberry festival of the First Methodist Church, 
which had promised to pay him thirty cents if he would do some 
juggling tricks. Approaching the neighborhood, Fields, with an 
air of professional elegance, was carrying a cane and the stooge 
was carrying the paraphernalia — three hats, five tennis balls, and 
three cigar boxes. A brisk rain started in as they sighted the 
church, and at the door the elder deacon told him that the festival 
would be held inside. Fields generously agreed to these arrange- 
ments and started in, followed by his porter. 

"I'm sorry," said the deacon, "but you'll have to leave the cigar 
boxes behind." 

"Why is that, my good fellow?" Fields asked. 

"Because smoking is a sin," said the deacon. 

"The boxes are empty," said Fields, opening the lids and show- 
ing him. 

"That makes no difference to the Lord," replied the deacon. 

35 



W. C. Fields 

"If you'll pardon us a moment, your worship," said Fields, 
withdrawing to the sidewalk, "my associate and I will confer." 
They put their heads together, and a few moments later Fields 
looked up and said, "If it will patch things up with the Lord, 
these boxes never contained tobacco — they were made especially 
for me." 

The deacon thought it over, then admitted them. In the course 
of the evening, following recitations of "Crossing the Bar" and 
"The Gypsy's Curse" by a daughter of the organist, Fields did his 
juggling. Afterward, catching the deacon loading up at the re- 
freshment table, he asked for his thirty cents. "Not now," said the 
deacon. "Later." Four additional times in the next two hours, 
Fields caught up with the deacon, tugged at his frock, and re- 
quested payment. The answer was always, "Not now. Wait till 
after the benediction." 

Finally, a little impatient, and determined to limit his future 
church work to Baptists, Fields got his stooge and went out to the 
foyer, which was filled with umbrellas. Nobody noticed the boys, 
as a basso was rocking the building with a rendition of "Asleep 
in the Deep." 

"Let's collect our wages," said Fields, and began to load up. 
Between them they carried out thirty-one umbrellas. Fields was 
considering a second trip, but the stooge maintained that the head 
deacon, though overweight, had the rangy build of a stepper, 
and they decided not to take a chance. An hour later they sold 
the thirty-one umbrellas at a downtown hockshop for a total of 
a dollar twenty cents. Then they boarded a streetcar, rode to the 
end of the line, entered a restaurant, and had the following meal 
for fifteen cents apiece: Steak, chicken, potatoes, beans, apple- 
sauce, peach pie, cheese, milk and coffee. 

Fields could never tell this anecdote often enough. When he 
reached its end, he would dwell lovingly on the itemized dinner. 

36 



Then, incensed at the appalling change in conditions, he would 
retire to the kitchen and bawl out his cook, having somehow be- 
come convinced that the whole thing was her fault. 

Early in the spring after his fourteenth birthday, Fields read a 
notice in a Philadelphia newspaper about the opening of an 
amusement park, variously called "Plymouth Park" and "Flynn 
and Grant Park," at nearby Norristown, Pennsylvania. Accord- 
ing to the ad, the management was negotiating for some of the 
most celebrated talent on two continents. Fields interpreted this 
as a clear call to action. He spent sixty cents for a round-trip 
ticket on a carline, and rode out to make application. He said later 
he was by no means surprised that the management hired him 
promptly. However, when he inquired about his salary, the man- 
ager fell into a violent coughing fit, and Fields withdrew. He re- 
turned in two weeks for the gala opening and performed several 
tricks he had perfected. "I was nervous," he wrote a friend long 
afterward. "I wasn't sure Norristown was quite ready for me." 
His contribution was well received, and the park retained him on 
an indefinite basis. At that time Fields' routines were similar to 
those of the Byrne Brothers, whose act he had frankly imitated. 
Among other things, he juggled five tennis balls, periodically pre- 
tending that one was getting away from him, and catching it, with 
comic gestures, as it flew off at an angle. Another trick involved 
the use of three hats, which he kept putting on his head, knocking 
off, and spinning into the air, meanwhile fixing his face in alter- 
nate expressions of abstraction, bafflement, dismay and belliger- 
ence, as the hats seemingly refused to obey. 

Fields, by now, had become practiced at a phase of juggling 
whose value rested more upon humor than on skill. In this 
period he was a remarkable all-around juggler and he had also 
learned an elementary but significant truth: though juggling was 

37 



W. C. Fields 

enjoyed by nearly everybody, it had to be different to be memo- 
rable. Fields introduced a fresh note into his tricks : he made them 
funny. He developed a genius for the conscious error, the re- 
trieved blunder. As the San Francisco Examiner was to note, a 
few years afterward, "It is impossible to tell whether Fields 
makes real or fake mistakes in his juggling. He will drop a hat 
apparently by accident in the middle of some difficult feat and 
then catch it by another apparently accidental movement. It is 
all so smooth and effortless." Though he was to carry juggling to 
heights previously unknown, he never lost his fondness for fum- 
bling. Many years later, when giving large dinner parties, Fields 
liked to stand at the head of his table and serve. After filling a 
plate, preferably a comparative stranger's, he would start to hand 
it down the line, and then drop it, provoking a loud, concerted 
gasp. With consummate nonchalance he would catch it just off 
the floor, without interrupting whatever outrageous anecdote he 
was relating at the moment. 

A good many of Fields' juggling stunts, during his Norristown 
connection, involved flipping up a slender object, such as a yard- 
stick, and catching it, balanced by one end, on a finger, a foot, or 
his forehead. As a result of the painful, man-killing practice he 
often described subsequently, Fields at fourteen was probably as 
good at this form of juggling as anybody in the world. The cigar 
boxes, which he had first taken to using only because they were 
available and free, were far from conventional juggling material, 
but they were to become symbolic of his art. At this time he had 
only begun to exploit them ; later he was to perfect a routine with 
cigar boxes that nobody else was ever able to duplicate. 

Most of Fields' materials were makeshift. "I evolved a trick 
to use small cups on the ends of rods," he told one of the Para- 
mount publicity men in 1926. "I caught small balls in the cups 
and continued juggling in the meantime. If I'd had any money 

38 



I would have bought this kind of stuff in places that supplied 
professionals, but I had to improvise. I made the rods out of 
pieces of broomstick. I stole the cups off an oil burner — they had 
them on there to cap the flames. A friend of mine who lived in a 
foundry drilled holes in the cups and fastened them to the broom- 
sticks. All my equipment was put together in this same general 
fashion." 

At the end of his first week at the amusement park, Fields re- 
ceived details about his salary. The manager called him in, com- 
plimented him on a brilliant performance, and produced five 
dollars. The manager added that, despite the deceptively large 
crowds, business had been slow. While Fields was unsuccessfully 
trying to resolve the logic of this statement, the manager deducted 
one dollar and fifty cents from his salary as "agent's commission." 
Fields went to a dressing tent to do some ciphering. At length 
he worked it out that, if he excluded meals, he was losing only ten 
cents a week on the engagement, counting carfare and commis- 
sion, and that, barring some emergency like illness or apprehen- 
sion by the Methodists, he could juggle professionally nearly all 
summer. As to the nest egg, he figured he would be spending it in 
a good cause. 

Before Fields had exhausted his capital performing at Plymouth 
Park, he had a stroke of fortune. On the bill with him were two 
Germans, teeterboard experts, who had taken a fancy to his 
work. In the middle of the summer they quit to accept an offer 
from Fortescue's Pier, in Atlantic City, and they urged Fields to go 
along. Fortescue's was a pleasure dome of imposing grandeur, 
compared to Plymouth Park, and Fields was reluctant to take 
the step. Among other things, he complained that he had no 
costumes, or even a change of clothing, except for a hunting shirt 
that had formerly belonged to the blacksmith. The Germans 
offered to buy him an alternate pair of trousers, but he refused 

39 



W. C. Fields 

to accept charity. In the next few days Fields pondered this 
opportunity. Then he hit on a shift in billing that would solve 
everything. He would drop his simple title of "Whitey, the Boy 
Wonder," alter his name slightly, and bill himself as "W. C. Fields, 
the Tramp Juggler." In this way he could walk onto any stage 
without having to change clothes. 

The Germans agreed that this was an inspired idea, and Fields 
bade farewell to the Norristown manager, who retained the bal- 
ance of his salary, a dollar and eighty cents, under the heading of 
"severance commission." Before he left Philadelphia, Fields had 
another inspiration. He decided to notify all his friends of his 
impending flight from the town of his nativity and hold a monster 
benefit for himself. He paid a hostler two dollars for the use of a 
stable, then went to work on the invitations. Fields never slacked 
any chore that was likely to pay off, and he concentrated with 
real vigor on the benefit. Not only did he inform his friends, his 
acquaintances, and a number of near-strangers, but he passed the 
word to bullies who had whipped him, bartenders who had regu- 
larly tossed him out of saloons, and a good portion of the city's 
police force, whose knowledge of Fields was confined largely to 
his heels. The evening arrived, and the benefit went off on 
schedule. Everybody agreed that it was a whacking success, and 
somewhat out of the ordinary as benefits went. Fields juggled a 
lot of equipment he had stolen from members of the audience, 
made several speeches in which he ran Philadelphia down merci- 
lessly, laying squarely on its shoulders the blame for losing him, 
and peddled a kind of punch he had made out of tap water, rotten 
lemons, and two quarts of peach brandy he'd found in a cellar. 
Then he passed the hat. The audience responded with surprising 
generosity. Although his friends sprang forward loyally, the heavi- 
est contributions came from the bartenders and the police. They'd 
had so much trouble with him that several of them sentimentally 

40 



declared they would be glad to send him a weekly remittance if 
he'd put up guarantees never to return. Fields thanked them for 
coming and, as they filed out, shook hands with each and every 
one. He said afterward that the closing minutes had netted him 
two watches, a gold penknife, and fourteen dollars in change, but 
he later denied this. In any case, he took in, altogether, around 
a hundred dollars, which was the most money he had ever seen 
in his life. For 1893, ^ was a sensational benefit, and Fields dis- 
cussed staying on a week longer and holding another, but the 
hostler said he didn't think it would be safe. 

The acquisition of sudden wealth made it possible for Fields 
to consider fancy costumes for his act. He went into several stores, 
to inspect different combinations, and finally decided to buy a new 
street outfit and cling to the tramp idea for juggling. Even though 
the ensemble he selected cost him eight dollars, he felt that he had 
picked up a bargain. It included a black-and-white checked suit, 
a pair of light tan shoes, and a gray derby of peculiarly low and 
rakish design. The secondhand clothing store in which he located 
these items was indifferently lighted, and when Fields came out 
he cleared up the continental aspect of the derby — it had appar- 
ently been sat on by some person of excessive tonnage. In another 
shop he bought an enormous piece of yellow luggage, and when 
he had gathered up his few other belongings, such as his cane, 
his tennis balls, his cigar boxes, and his hunting shirt, he left for 
Atlantic City, riding in a day coach and smoking a big black cigar. 
Philadelphia's loss, as he had hinted at the benefit, was the world's 
gain. A great comedian was on his way. 

When Fields reached Fortescue's Pier, which housed a beer 
garden and a restaurant, he searched out the Germans and made 
application for a job. Looking him over, the management was 
dubious. The boy was a colorful sight, but he seemed young for 

4i 



W. C. Fields 

the big time. By happy chance a friend of the Germans', Sliding 
Billy Watson, already a favorite and soon to become legendary, 
was on the bill. The Germans arranged a meeting, and Fields 
went through his routine. "You've got a great act, my boy," Wat- 
son told him. "You're going to be famous." Fields agreed, and 
awaited developments. On Watson's advice, the manager of 
Fortescue's signed the juggler on, but with reservations. His duties 
transcended ordinary juggling ; besides doing his tricks, he was re- 
quired, by contract, to swim out and drown several times daily. 
"Iss a great chance," one of the Germans told him. "You haff ar- 
rived." Though skeptical, Fields accepted the job. He soon found 
that major-league vaudeville was not child's play. By comparison, 
the stint at Plymouth Park seemed like a vacation. At the end of his 
first day's work, he was in a state of almost total collapse. Activi- 
ties on the Pier had begun early, with the arrival of the first 
swimmers on the adjoining beach. Fields and his colleagues went 
through their routines a couple of times, and then interest slacked 
off. At this point, prodded by the manager, Fields changed to a 
bathing suit, swam out about a hundred yards, sank, arose, 
thrashed around, and began to bawl for help. Fortescue's life 
guards were prompt and efficient; he was towed in fast and the 
bilge pumped out. The incident attracted large crowds, and 
shortly afterward Fields resumed juggling. A drowning appeared 
to have a salutary effect on the Atlantic City crowds; it made 
them both hungry and thirsty. Fields' double-barreled offering was 
repeated every hour or so until late in the evening, at which time 
he staggered damply to a room he'd rented and fell into a 
troubled, aqueous sleep. 

One of the inducements of this job, in Fields' eyes, had been 
the substantial salary of ten dollars a week and, in the trade term, 
"cakes." All in all, it looked like a pleasant situation, and the 
employees were an agreeable group. Fields and a cornetist in the 

42 



band, a youngster named Frank Tinney, met frequently to dis- 
cuss their ambitions. Each assured the other that he would become 
famous, and, as it turned out, they were both right. The fare in 
the beer garden was tolerably good ; also, the artists, including the 
drowner, were permitted to gorge at will. Do what he would, 
however, Fields was unable to pry any cash out of the manager. 
Like the head of Plymouth Park, the man beefed steadily about 
business, which seemed, at least superficially, to be bustling. "I 
need a dollar to pay for my room," Fields told him at the end of 
a week. "If I had a dollar clear, I'd hire another drowner," 
the manager replied. Then he promised to settle up by the next 
week end. When that time rolled around, Fields was in reduced 
mental and physical circumstances. For one thing, he was an- 
noyed about the absence of pay; for another, his co-ordination 
had gone sour. The trouble was easily diagnosed : briefly, the boy 
was too waterlogged to juggle. His situation looked desperate, and 
when the manager welshed again, he quit. For two days Fields 
dried out in his room ; then he went down the boardwalk a short 
way and got a different job. The pay was nominally the same, and 
his duties were entirely landlocked. 

His experience at Fortescue's made Fields permanently hostile 
toward swimming. He also liked to say that it turned him against 
water in general. He once told a reporter, inaccurately, that he 
had never taken a drink of water after his last encounter with 
the life guards at Atlantic City. "I didn't need any more," he said. 
"I had it stored up, like a camel." During the last quarter of his 
life, Fields occasionally rented houses that had swimming pools. 
He kept the pools filled for company, but he never went near them 
himself. When people inquired about this curious behavior, he'd 
say, "I once drowned twelve times a day for two weeks. Would 
you like to swim if you'd drowned one hundred and sixty-eight 
times?" 

43 



CHAPTER SIX 



F 

_tlEL 



ields new job was at a neighboring pier which 
was also a kind of staging point for traveling troupes. The proprie- 
tor lacked the progressive ideas of Fortescue, operating, for one 
thing, without a drowner, but he was deployed over a wider area. 
He tried out acts at the pier, then, if he could talk them into it, 
he sent them on the road. His employment of Fields opened up 
new and dismal adventures for the boy juggler. The pier was, in 
a way, a springboard, though situated, as it were, beside a dry 
pool. 

Rested and dehydrated, Fields was an immediate success in his 
new situation. His co-ordination returned and his spirits bright- 
ened. It was not long before he was tapped for a road tour. 

"You're too big for the pier," the manager told him. "I'm going 
to put you in one of my traveling burlesque companies. Very 
high-class, artistic-type entertainment." 

Exhibiting the business acumen that had caused him to score 
so heavily with the benefit, Fields replied, "What's the salary?" 

"Eighteen a week, transportation, and the best of lodgings," 
said the manager. "You'll be booked out of my New York office." 

Fields joined the company in New York and the members 
headed in the general direction of the Middle West. For people 

44 



in a glamorous profession they were not overly imposing. The 
company manager was a ferret-faced little man named Hawkins, 
who, Fields said later, was never able to look him in the eye. Im- 
partial accounts indicate that, in this matter, Hawkins is deserv- 
ing of some sympathy; during the weeks they spent together, 
Fields tried to look him in the eye every ten or fifteen minutes, 
to complain about conditions. The villain of the troupe, an elderly 
wreck named Harley McSneed, was generally too drunk to go 
onstage, and Fields took his part, appearing in a mustache fash- 
ioned from dyed hemp, and carrying a blacksnake whip. Various 
other members of the company were often indisposed, for one 
reason or another. The ingenue, Fields said, was frequently held 
up through the absent-minded misplacing of her upper plate. She 
probably did not have, as he usually added, her two grandchildren 
along on the tour. Somewhere in New Jersey, the woman who 
played the mother parts was jailed on an immorality charge, and 
Fields also took over her role. If tired, he spoke her lines with his 
usual wheezy twang and was sometimes critically assailed in 
communities of outstanding culture. Throughout most of New 
Jersey this criticism took the form of overripe tomatoes ; for some 
reason it switched to cabbages as they entered Ohio. 

It was often difficult to separate the chaff from the wheat in 
Fields' reports of his travels. The best authorities agree, however, 
that on his first road tour he did a great many things besides 
juggle. Contrary to many published reports, he accompanied his 
tricks with a monologue in this period. It varied widely from day 
to day, depending on his luck at stealing jokes. In small towns, 
he cultivated a practice of visiting public libraries and reading up 
on humorous literature. When he ran across anything worth- 
while, he added it to his patter. Also, he said, he lifted jokes rather 
indiscriminately from rival acts. When confronted with these 
thefts, as he frequently was, Fields would draw up with such in- 

45 



W. C. Fields 

jured truculence that the accuser usually retired in confusion, un- 
convinced as to who was actually guilty. "Bill stole a good many 
of his later vaudeville routines from Harry Tate, the London 
comedian," says Gregory La Cava, who directed several of 
Fields' early movies. "He would steal any act he could get away 
with, but if somebody tried to borrow something from him, he 
went crazy." Once, in the Vanities, Fields stood in the wings 
watching Ben Blue, who, warming up to his work, unexpectedly 
went into a routine he'd done years before. When he came off 
the stage, Fields grabbed him by the collar and knocked him 
down. "You stole that from me!" he roared. Blue called him a 
liar and got witnesses to vouch for the originality of his material. 
Fields then realized that Blue was merely stealing back something 
Fields had originally stolen from him, and he made no further 
fuss. 

On the tour, Fields complained steadily until they reached Kent, 
Ohio, where the manager abandoned the company and returned 
to New York. "I'm going in for a conference," he told the players, 
whose salaries had not been paid since they left. "Your hotel bills 
are taken care of until I get back." Half an hour after his de- 
parture, the hotel clerk came up with a bellboy and put the com- 
pany's luggage in the street. He said the manager had left an 
unpaid bill of fifteen dollars and seventy-five cents. Once again 
Fields found himself adrift in cheerless surroundings, but he re- 
ported later that on the whole he was glad; he said he had been 
playing so many different parts that he was beginning to develop 
a split personality. He had taken to muttering fragments of dia- 
logue to himself as he walked along the streets. He would pull up 
on a busy corner, cry, "Oh, you will, will you?" hiss, "And who's 
to stop me?" then continue, with the crudest kind of gestures: 

"Oh, you rotter, you unutterable cad!" 

4 6 



"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never 
hurt me." 

"Oh, God! if my brother, Ellsworth Boynton, the heavy- 
weight wrestling champion of the world, who, if you recall, was 
mentioned in Act One as being expected back momentarily from 
London, were only here!" 

"Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!" 

"Help! Police! Police!" 

Fields often collected quite a crowd with these inadvertent 
scenes, and he occasionally sensed that professional-looking men, 
with satchels, were eying him speculatively. He felt that the time 
had come to return to pure juggling. Though he was relieved to 
be free, his situation was critical. He had started the trip with a 
tidy stake, the remnant of his benefit fund plus a couple of weeks' 
salary from Atlantic City. But he had been lending money, at 
usurious rates, to the manager, who was expecting a large check 
from New York at each stop. A business plunge of this kind was 
foreign to Fields' principles, and he was both financially and 
spiritually hurt by its failure. "The bastard offered me 50 per 
cent interest," he related to a friend. "It was a shabby way to 
treat a boy in his teens." 

Fields never forgot the lesson he learned in Kent. In after life 
nobody could borrow from him. Now and then he gave some 
needy person money, on the quiet, but he would not lend as much 
as fifty cents to his closest friend. One afternoon on the Para- 
mount lot, William Le Baron told a number of movie actors 
about a once-popular star who was currently down and out. Then 
he took up a collection. Fields withdrew to a shady corner, sat 
down, and watched the proceedings with a disapproving eye. 
Everybody expressed sympathy and contributed generously, 
Maurice Chevalier and Bing Crosby handing over a hundred dol- 

47 



W. C. Fields 

lars apiece. When Le Baron reached Fields, he said, "How much 
shall I put you down for, Bill?" 

"Not a dime," snarled Fields. 

"Why not?" said Le Baron. "If you're that damned cheap, I'll 
put up a hundred for you." 

Fields was so annoyed by Le Baron's generous stand that he 
finally came forward with a hundred dollars. But he grumbled 
about it all the rest of the week. 

Another time one of his best friends, Charley Mack, of the 
blackface team of Moran and Mack, somehow found himself 
detained in Syracuse for nonpayment of alimony. "Please send 
me $500," he wired Fields. "I'm in jail up here." Mack waited 
eagerly for his old pal's reply, which arrived with heart-warming 
promptness. "If it's a good jail, I'll join you," Fields told him. 

Stranded in Kent in the dead of winter, with six dollars, Fields 
appraised his situation carefully. His findings were negative; the 
situation had nothing to recommend it. He borrowed a sled from 
a group of boys coasting on a hill, and hauled his baggage from 
the hotel to the railroad station, a distance of half a mile. Then 
he went about trying to sell an overcoat he had recently acquired 
in another secondhand store. A pimply youth in a saloon, with 
many a leer and wink, bid two dollars for the coat on condition 
that Fields introduce him to the company's ingenue. Fields ex- 
plained this situation to the lady, who agreed to help him out. 
Either her presence or the beer he had been drinking exerted a 
keen aphrodisiac effect on the youth, for as soon as he met her 
he tried to drag her upstairs in the hotel. Fields was obliged to 
knock the fellow down, thus forfeiting the sale of the coat. Later, 
quizzed about the cause of the trouble, Fields said, "He was trying 
to get her to adopt him." 

Back in the saloon, Fields at last sold the coat, for two dollars, 
and proceeded to the station. And there he had an experience 

48 



which affected him profoundly. When he reached the ticket win- 
dow, he asked the fare to New York, and the agent, an elderly, 
gray-haired man wearing steel spectacles, quoted it at ten dollars 
and a few cents. 

"Well, I guess I'm stuck," said Fields (as he repeated the con- 
versation in later years. "I've got eight dollars." 

"Aren't you one of that play-acting bunch?" asked the agent. 

Fields replied that he was, then awaited the familiar sneer. 

"People don't put much trust in you folks, do they?" said the 
agent. 

"We're used to it," Fields told him. 

The agent closed the window and came around into the wait- 
ing room, where he took a ten-dollar bill out of his pocket. "Son," 
he said, handing the bill to Fields, "I've always wondered what 
there was to that story. When you get a little ahead, send this 
back." 

It was one of the few acts of gratuitous kindness Fields could 
remember in the fifteen years of his life, and it pierced his case- 
hardened shell. He sat down on a bench and cried. 

Despite his most persevering efforts, it was two years before he 
could repay the debt. On Christmas Eve, 1896, when he had 
just received an advance of twenty dollars from Fred Irwin, the 
manager of a reputable road show, he mailed two ten-dollar bills 
to Kent. In an accompanying, grateful note, he explained that 
one was for interest. Then he went to a free soup kitchen on New 
York's west side and stood in line for a Christmas dinner. 



49 



CHAPTER SEVEN 



F 

JL OR 



or a couple of years after I made my start, I was 
dead broke practically all the time," Fields told an interviewer 
for the American magazine in 1926. He was referring to his 
middle teens, years that most boys later look back upon as their 
happiest. It would be hard to exaggerate the wretchedness of 
Fields' life in this period. He tramped to the booking offices, he 
starved, he froze, and he became so threadbare he was ashamed 
to ask for jobs. Having an understandable prejudice against the 
outfit that had disconnected him in Ohio, he avoided its office 
for weeks, hoping for something better. Once during this interval 
he signed on with a cheap circus, but his niche was ignominious. 
The management had a juggler, a very jealous man, and Fields, 
the erstwhile darling of Fortescue's, the most prolific drowner in 
the memory of Atlantic City, and the majority of a road-show 
cast, took work as a peg boy. His duties consisted mainly of having 
his fingers crushed by roustabouts swinging mauls. His hands were 
heavily bandaged; he wore gauze as Eskimos wear gloves — con- 
stantly and with resignation. By nagging his bosses, he finally 
ascended to drum carrier, and his fingers healed. His enjoyment 
was intense when he wangled this job, but he found that it, like 
holding pegs, was imperfect. The trouble was that the circus 

50 



manager was a rhythm lover and, though exceptionally stingy, 
had gone all out for a drum. It was quite an instrument — huge, 
weighty, resonant, an easy standout in a rackety band. In east- 
ern New Jersey, on a clear day, according to Fields, its booming 
was clearly audible across the Hudson. 

In a short time the boy was able to hear only outstanding dis- 
turbances like thunder, explosions, and collapsing buildings. His 
sleeping became spotty; at night, though the songs were ended, 
the drum continued to boom. After two weeks of this, he con- 
cluded that neither deafness nor lunacy was preferable to 
mangled hands, and he volunteered for a comedown. The man- 
agement, rhythm-happy but understanding, assigned him to a 
trio of discontented elephants. Throughout his life Fields never 
really cared for elephants, and he felt that the three he met in the 
circus were especially difficult. Also, he said, despite their size 
they were narrow-minded. Fields had a trick of absently releas- 
ing mice in their area, and the elephants took it personally, re- 
taliating in various ways. They tripped Fields as he was carrying 
water; they doused him when he'd spruced up for a date with 
the snake charmer ; they gulped water steadily and blew it on the 
ground; and, worst of all, they kept nudging him. Walking be- 
tween them with a pail, Fields would be rocked off balance by 
the bull; then one of the females would close in and bounce him 
back. A moment later he would find himself dangerously brack- 
eted, and he would bawl for aid. The association grew into a 
continuous series of practical jokes, with Fields, as he acknowl- 
edged, both outnumbered and outthought. 

Studying them, Fields decided that the elephants were profes- 
sional expatriates ; also, he believed they didn't like show business. 
"Why don't you go back where you came from if you don't like it 
here?" he said he used to yell at them. Both he and the elephants 

5i 



W. C. Fields 

were elated when the show's juggler found himself, in addition 
to his working materials, with a case of measles on his hands. 
Fields, through almost tearful persuasion, succeeded to the post, 
even though his equipment was stored in a New York loft. He 
juggled alone for three weeks, then he was joined by the stricken 
performer, who had dropped the measles. After that they juggled 
together. One time, trying to recall those days for an interviewer, 
Fields said that his act had centered on his juggling a lamp, a 
silk hat, a cigar, two white mice and an orange. He added that 
in some New Jersey city the S.P.G.A. had made him give up the 
mice. He was always loyal to old friendships, he said, and he freed 
the mice near the elephant pen. 

It was getting along toward the cold weather now, and the 
show holed up. Without much reluctance Fields returned to New 
York. He liked the circus' air of unqualified fraud, but he 
thought that for a juggler the business was a dead end. In later 
years, however, he set up as an authority on both circuses and 
carnivals and used material from them in his work. In doing the 
stage show Poppy, which had a carnival story, and in making the 
pictures Sally of the Sawdust and Poppy, both of which grew out 
of the play, Fields was a terrible nuisance about expounding carni- 
val lore. When he first walked onto the movie set of Poppy, he 
examined an equestrian ring suspiciously and called for a yard- 
stick. Then he took the ring's diameter and yelled, "This thing's 
a yard too wide. Pull it in." The production group went into an- 
noyed conference. "The diameter of circus rings in ancient Rome 
was fourteen yards, nine inches," Fields said testily. "That size 
has prevailed everywhere in the world since then, and we're not 
going to depart from it. It's a matter of universal superstition. 
When the corrections are finished, you'll find me in my dressing 
room." A group of disgusted carpenters rebuilt the ring, and the 
cast reconvened. 

Fields' untriumphant re-entry into New York found him no 

52 



wealthier than he had been when he left. In fact, except for a 
serviceable pair of mohair trousers he said he had stolen from 
the half man half woman, who was currently dressing feminine, 
he was in precisely the same condition. He made a quick round 
of the booking offices, was offered a job, at no salary, as under- 
study to the rear end of a skin act, and finally dragged himself 
to the office of his former employer. The man was glad to see 
him; he reminisced about the good times in Atlantic City and 
expressed regret over the recent incident in Ohio, ascribing it to 
a villainous unit manager. The man had left the firm, he said, and 
Fields would be welcomed into another wandering troupe, with 
a three-dollar salary advance. There was no mention of back pay. 
The players left town in a week, this time taking a more south- 
erly route. Fields juggled, played small parts, sang, danced, lec- 
tured, filled in for absentees, and, by degrees, found his job almost 
identical to his last stint with the company. But the new unit 
manager was vastly more satisfactory than the fugitive from Kent. 
Although he never paid anybody any salary, he looked Fields in 
the eye without flinching and his manner was frankly larcenous. 
He put the players at ease ; they knew he was going to rob them 
and wasted no time in idle speculation. His real talent, then, lay 
in his ability to remove worry from the unit, leaving the emphasis 
on artistry. He was popular with all hands. "A capital fellow, 
Baxter," they'd say. "A real, dyed-in-the-wool rogue, a skunk of 
the old school." Several of the cast, including Fields, placed wagers 
on Baxter's probable desertion, one fixing it near Trenton, an- 
other making it Reading, and a third declaring in favor of Pitts- 
burgh. Fields kept piling change on Punxsatawney, a town whose 
name he liked (and which he used, intermittently, forever after- 
ward ) , and lost heavily. The manager did not, in fact, disappear 
until they reached Wheeling, and then only after he'd bought a 
new suit, a certain giveaway of his intentions. Everybody agreed 

53 



W. C. Fields 

that it was a sporting gesture, and, using the past tense, as of a 
cadaver, they spoke highly of him. 

Fields got back to New York by riding the rods of the Balti- 
more and Ohio Railroad. It was an uncomfortable trip, for win- 
ter, and in one place, at least, he came within a shade of freezing. 
The train hit a flooded spot in Pennsylvania, and the boy was 
drenched. Since the train was doing fifty or sixty miles an hour, 
there was no opportunity for him to get down, and when he did, 
a couple of yardmen had to chop him down. He was taken to 
a railroad shack, where he eventually thawed out, although for 
a couple of hours a local physician was talking enthusiastically 
about amputations. Arrived in New York, Fields made another 
swing of the booking places, and this time he had better luck. A 
berth was open at the old Globe Museum, on Third Avenue ; the 
headless lady, while walking on the icy pavements, had fallen 
and fractured her skull. Her stall was fitted up for Fields to juggle 
in. While the alterations progressed, he had additional good for- 
tune. A heavy snow fell on the city, and he obtained several days' 
work shoveling, at twenty cents an hour. 

Life in the museum, he found when he started, was stimulating 
and congenial. He worked in close association with a ventriloquist, 
a bearded lady, and a fire-eater. The four took lunch together, 
generally going to a nearby Mexican restaurant to accommodate 
the fire-eater, who favored warm, spicy foods. They talked over 
plans for success, agreeing that, no matter where fate directed 
them, they would continue to keep in touch and write round let- 
ters at Christmastime. A reporter, moved by this story, once 
asked Fields if they had stuck to their resolve. "None of us ever 
sent so much as a post card," Fields told him. 

In one way the museum was troublesome : it was inadequately 
heated and the fire-eater was the only one of the performers who 
could stay comfortable. Fields was getting ten dollars a week for 

54 




. 



"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nine- 
teen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual ex- 
penditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery!' Fields in 
one of his greatest roles, as Micawber in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 
masterpiece, David Copperfield. (® Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) 




The indigent Micawher steps ivarily ihrough a ivorld a-swarm with 
sharp-eyed creditors. ( c? Metro-Goldwijn-Mayer) 



/ 




The young vaudeville star on tour in Australia in 190S, wearing the 
tramp's costume he selected to avoid reckless wardrobe outlays. 
(Brown Brothers) 



3** ; 




In the Paramount picture, Six of a Kind, Fields' face be- 
trays a beginning suspicion that his pool cue may not be 
altogether straight. (®1949 Paramount Pictures, Inc.) 



The familiar nasal bray at full throttle. Adjacent sufferers, 
in Six of a Kind, include Mary Boland, Grade Allen, and 
George Burns. (®1934 Paramount Pictures, Inc.) 






John Barrymore and his close friend, Fields, the mighty lover, in an 
exciting pose for the bobby soxers. (®19S8 Paramount Pictures, Inc.) 



a a 



*JN&5 



., ' 



In If I Had a Million, Fields, with Allison Skipivorth and 
"some strong, brave driver" prowls the highway in search 
of roadliogs. The scene represented the happy fruition 
of one of the comedians long-suppressed desires. (Pen- 
guin Photo) 



3? 



Fastidiously dressed, Fields, as Cuthbert J. Twilly, an 
itinerant medicine man and card sharp, directs a romantic 
leer at Mae West, the plumed and velveted Flower Belle 
of My Little Chickadee. (Culver Service) 





At the height of his legitimate theater 
fame, the unctuous faker of Poppy 
suggests a pose to Edward Steichen, 
who, working under difficulties, photo- 
graphed him for Vanity Fair. 



A favorite stunt of his vaudeville days. 
He's lost the hat— in attempting to put 
it on his head he got it on the stick by 
mistake. (Acme Newspictures) 



% 




Fields in tipper-class regalia for 
a Broadway show. Although the 
sleeves are a trifle short and the 
suspenders more in evidence than 
is common, his attitude suggests 
the manorial ease with which he 
mingled in the highest society. 
(Cidver Service) 



The star of Poppy, a hit Broad- 
way musical. Fields at forty- 
five. (Culver Service) 






■ 





In his Long Island movie period, Fields exhibits the cheery, relaxed 
gaze and the comfortable garb of the typical dedicated golfer. ( Culver 
Service ) 





■ J*f 


_ 


■*Si? 




;. 


* I *9 ^!^H *'« 


^M 


^B <<£ ' *""** K 






P ^J { 


i *w J 


1^^ J 






III 






'' vK 


! 

m ] 


Jis^H 








mk 




r 






B ' 1 


ft h wM 








^m1» * *«■ 


M wLI - 






u| 








■Kuju^^^R 





77ie ga*/ £>M<? of musical comedy and a pair of Broadway beauties. 
With his usual perverseness, Fields chose to wear his clip-in mus- 
tache, an object of widespread revulsion. (Cidver Service) 




The masters version of American home life. Zazu Pitts, in 
Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, is about to administer 
a routine marital clout. (®1934 Paramount Pictures, Inc.) 

Horrified, clutching his glass of spirits, Fields blocks an 
ill-advised cinema attempt to ply him with water. ( Real- 
art Pictures, Inc. ) 



4^t 



**'<♦ . 




Fields softens up Baby LeRoy for the scene-stealing compe- 
tition which formed the skeleton of their relationship. 
(Culver Service) 



The adhesive Mrs. Micawher, supported by the sage of 
King's Bench Prison (with spectacles from the wardrobe of 
W. C. Fields), offers pearls from her maternal experience 
to the departing Copperfield. (® Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) 




&M 



* .s.r*r -'■' 



Carlotta Monti, a movie singer and dancer, was Fields faithful nurse- 
maid and friend during the last stormy years of his life. ( Photograph 
by Maurine ) 



Fields and his actor friend, 
Sam Hardy, at the formers 
Toluca Lake residence. 
Prominently featured is the 
comedians portable bar, an 
important aspect of his 
sprightly tennis game. 





Fields' exasperated trainer, 
Bob Howard, reluctantly 
supplies refreshment to the 
comedian in the course of a 
rigorous health session. 
(Life photograph by Peter 
Stackpole ) 



RINCESS BAB/ 



In the crowded hodge- 
podge, You Can't Cheat 
an Honest Man, Fields 
presents his notion of 
a ventriloquist with a 
dummy. The whiskered 
dentures, an original in- 
spiration, were a subject 
for vilification through- 
out the studio. (Brown 
Brothers) 



A friendly game with 
Bergen and McCarthy, 
co-stars of You Can't 
Cheat an Honest Man. 
Fields' poker expression, 
a look of rocklike integ- 
rity, was always reas- 
suring except to the 
chronically suspicious. 
(Realart Pictures, Inc.) 






In The Bank Dick, a Universal study of genius amok, 
Fields is about to accomplish what his face suggests is 
only a minor abstraction, or nothing to worry about. 
( Culver Service ) 



Disguising his office by means of a scraggly mustache, 
Fields, as "The Bank Dick," eventually succeeds in collar- 
ing and shaking up a small boy playing with a cap pistol. 
(Realart Pictures, Inc.) 




his tricks, and collecting it, but he was so continuously frostbitten 
that he finally moved up to a flea circus on Fourteenth Street, 
which had a coal stove. There, in comparative warmth and bat- 
tling the fleas for pre-eminence, he practiced his delicate art. He 
was developing into a master juggler, but he was, he felt, at a 
financial stalemate. Notwithstanding the low scale paid to fleas, 
which were then unorganized, the circus's profits were modest, 
and Fields could never jockey his price above the standard 
ten dollars. When an opportunity came, through an impre- 
sario named Jim Fulton, to join another traveling burlesque, he 
snapped it up. Altogether, it was a substantial rise ; the salary was 
twenty-five dollars a week and was actually paid now and then 
when business was unusually flush. 

Like the managers of most Eastern road companies, Fulton 
took his troupe into the Middle West. He was a man of some 
artistic integrity, a fact that militated in favor of Fields. Whereas, 
on previous hauls, the boy juggler had been required to supple- 
ment his tricks by acting in various capacities, he was now re- 
lieved of these additional duties. After one performance, in Zanes- 
ville, Ohio, when Fields was asked to fill in as the love-smitten 
daughter of a hardware merchant, Fulton gave it up as a bad 
job. As nearly as Fields could diagnose the trouble, his raucous 
bellowing that "I must think of my father — I must! I must!" 
sounded unconvincing. Also, Fulton indicated, the fake yellow 
curls looked odd in conjunction with Fields' nose, which, though 
not unlovely in this period, was recognizably masculine. Added 
to this, at a point in the action where the daughter had nothing 
much to do, being required only to stand by while her father had 
it out with a yarn salesman, she pulled three cigars out of her 
tunic and accomplished some extremely spirited sleight of hand, 
misplacing the scene's emphasis, in the opinion of the manager. 

Of Fields' work at this time he said to a reporter, Mary B. 

55 



W. C. Fields 

Mullett, in the middle 1920s, "You see, although my specialty 
was juggling, I used it only as a means to an end. I didn't just 
stand up and toss balls, knives, plates, and clubs. I invented little 
acts, which would seem like episodes out of real life; and I used 
my juggling to furnish the comedy element. 

"Somehow, even though I was only a kid, I had sense enough 
to know that I must work my mind and not just my hands. If I 
hadn't realized that, I'd be laid on the shelf today. People would 
be saying, 'Bill Fields? Oh, yes! he used to be a juggler, didn't 
he?' " 

Although his role as all-around understudy was ended, Fields 
sometimes took part in burlesque skits involving several come- 
dians. Fulton's "burlesque" was unlike the burlesque of later 
years ; more properly, his unit could have been called a repertory 
company. Its usual presentation was an ordinary two- or three-act 
play, one of the damp, anguished melodramas then in flower. 
Between acts, Fields did his specialties. As a change of pace Ful- 
ton on some nights gave a series of comic skits, out of which gen- 
eral entertainment grew the muscular, ribald burlesque of today. 
For the most part, his players were quiet and well-behaved. Fields' 
personal life in this time of his eighteenth year alternated between 
sequestration and public expansiveness, the latter usually accom- 
panied by beer. From taking a glass of beer as an excuse to gorge 
on free lunch, he had grown fond of an occasional session during 
which he drank quite a few glasses in a row and eschewed the 
food. Fields was to know stretches late in life when he insisted 
on eschewing food thoroughly ; he sometimes eschewed it for days 
on end. With Fulton, he either sat in his room and read books 
or repaired to a saloon and foregathered with the local bloods. 
If the troupe had a rosy, accommodating ingenue, Fields also 
devoted many evenings to dalliance ; he was fond of girls and was, 
in turn, popular with them, although they often complained bit- 

56 



terly about his stinginess. As a general thing, when a girl in Fields' 
presence expressed a desire for refreshment, he took it to mean 
beer, or water, and he had no compunctions about dining, a deux, 
in a dog wagon. His ceaseless bout with privation had given him a 
vast respect for money. To a man in the Fulton company who 
inquired as to his ultimate ambition on earth, Fields replied, "To 
make a thousand dollars a week." As he said it, his eyes were 
fixed on that bright, personal horizon and he seemed to know 
that he would be there, on some secret schedule of his own, a 
few years hence. 

Early photographs of the young juggler reveal him as moder- 
ately handsome, with a full head of light-colored hair parted near 
the middle, a firm, self-contained, indomitable line of a mouth, 
and humorous, quizzical eyes. Only in Fields' eyes could one 
read the vast, pervasive sense of the absurdity in humans that was 
to shape all his work; in the rest of his face was written the 
hard score of his fight for survival. Fields grew to be quite vain 
about having his picture taken. He was often peremptory with 
photographers about which exposures he wanted developed. In 
general, he liked views that glamorized him and rejected ones that 
had a searching or definitive quality. A print that he gave to 
close friends during his Hollywood years shows him holding a 
cane somewhat in the manner of the late Jimmy Walker, flaw- 
lessly barbered, and exhibiting the filmy stare of a young actor 
approaching the worn balcony of the Capulets. "Is that the cane 
you used in your juggling acts, Bill?" a recipient of the print 
once asked him, and Fields replied with considerable heat, "Jug- 
gling, hell ! That stick's been in the family for generations." Fields' 
touchiness about pictures grew out of the fact that he was re- 
peatedly caricatured in his tramp costume. As a rule the artist 
wrote some such caption as "The Tramp Juggler" or "Skillful 
Comic," but too often, in Fields' opinion, the picture carried the 

57 



W. C. Fields 

simple identification — "W. C. Fields." It made him look as if 
he'd just rolled into town off a cattle train, and he was convinced 
that people took it as his habitual state of dishevelment. "This 
kind of thing might get back to Philadelphia and ruin me so- 
cially," he once said. 

It was on Fulton's tour that comic juggling got its first real 
impetus in this country. Like his namesake with the steamboat, 
Fulton was to open new vistas with a traveling unit. Whereas 
Robert had gone upstream with the Clermont, Jim moved over- 
land with Fields. During their association, which lasted eighteen 
months, Fields became popular out of all proportion to his theo- 
retical salary and his billing. "The best act in the first part of the 
program last evening was that of W. C. Fields, a juggler with 
a nice, quiet manner, a relief after the noisy and laborious team 
of Greene and Werner," read an item of the period in the Cleve- 
land Plain Dealer. Critics everywhere showered praise on the 
boy, and he began to sense a gigantic maladjustment. Back in 
New York, after the tour, he took steps to correct this. When 
Fred Irwin, whose road shows occupied a comparatively exalted 
standing in the theater, offered him a job, Fields said, "I'll have 
to have thirty-five dollars a week." 

"Why, that's outrageous!" cried Irwin. "You haven't been 
getting anywhere near that." 

"I was getting twenty-five dollars with Fulton," said Fields, 
"and my work has improved exactly 40 per cent." 

"Yes, but there's a difference," Irwin told him, and added, with 
familiar theatrical logic, "You see, I pay my salaries. Everybody 
knows that. You ought to take less." 

"Thirty-five a week," said Fields, secure in the knowledge of 
his new popularity. 

Irwin capitulated, but he was marked for further woe. He and 
Fields had no contract — a system that managers of that era 

58 



favored. With Irwin, it was a precaution against an act's failing 
to come up to snuff ; with other managers, it was a hedge against 
the awful possibility that a performer might turn unruly and de- 
mand to be paid, at which point he would be released for insub- 
ordination. Working conditions among players could scarcely 
have been worse. They were housed in the meanest of lodgings 
and fed at the boarding tables of parsimonious widows; they 
dressed in wind-swept cubbies overrun with rats; many nights 
they sat up in dingy coaches and did shows all the next day. Their 
social position was roughly similar to that of a condemned baby 
strangler — "decent people" drew aside to avoid touching them 
on the sidewalk. A popular joke of the time, conceived by an in- 
sensitive but humorous juvenile and destined to be much used, 
in variations, went as follows: 

mother (to returning prodigal) : And what have you been 
doing all these years, Otis? 

son (drawing himself up defensively) : I've been employed as 
an actor, Mother. 

mother (with a loud shriek and near fainting) : Oh, my God ! 
This is terrible ! Your father and I thought you were a bur- 
glar! 

As managers went, Irwin was a shining model of benevolence. 
But the time was the managers' heyday, and the best were none 
too good. Deserting a company of paupers in an unfriendly ham- 
let was regarded, as the worst, as mildly rude, or thoughtless ; there 
was no real point of ethics involved. A manager's promise of 
salary was like a weatherman's promise of rain — sometimes it 
rained, more often it didn't. In any case, it was nobody's fault. 
Players accepted their lot stoically. They were in the business for 
the love of it, and, by and large, that's all they expected to get. 
This viewpoint, though widespread, could not accurately be ap- 

59 



W. C. Fields 

plied to Fields. He stands up well among the great moneylovers 
of his day. In fact, few persons in any profession have ever had 
a more wholesome regard for a dollar. He realized that if audi- 
ences were cool to his act Irwin would drop him without a qualm, 
and he planned his campaign accordingly. As punishment for his 
greed, Irwin decreed that Fields should lead off the bill — an im- 
possible spot for a juggler. Stragglers and program rustlers blurred 
those delicate climaxes so vital to the appreciation of precise 
sleight of hand. However, of the opening performance, in Newark, 
a critic wrote, "Easily the best act on Irwin's bill last night was 
the opener, an up-and-coming youngster named W. E. Fields. 
We'll keep an eye on you, Mr. Fields!" Fields was undisturbed 
by the fact that the critic misfired on his middle initial; it was 
five or six minutes after the paper hit the street when he appeared 
in Irwin's office. 

"Seen the reviews?" he said pleasantly. 

"That's a hard edition to make," said Irwin. "Most of the boys 
have to leave real early." 

"It's here on page five," continued Fields. "Man says, 'Easily 
the best act ' " 

"This is the minor league," Irwin assured him. "The real critics 
come later." 

"I didn't get to finish," Fields said. "What I was about to say 
was, I need fifty a week." 

Irwin howled like a man stricken, but he had little choice. He 
agreed to the fifty, and the tour proceeded. It went smoothly as 
far as Cincinnati, where a reporter for the Inquirer wrote, "Fields 
was a scream. Irwin has a real find there." 

A few minutes after edition time, Fields, heavy with papers, 
sought out the manager again. 

"Looked over the news, Fred?" he asked, having decided, 
democratically, on the given name. 

60 



"I never read the papers," said Irwin. "It gives me indigestion." 

"Man says, 'Fields was a scream. Irwin has a real ' " 

"What's on your mind, Bill?" said the manager, who believed 
in cutting to the heart of a situation. 

"Seventy-five dollars," said Fields. 

"You're a goddamned bandit," Irwin told him. "This is the 
last raise you get, if I have to disband the unit." 

Fields clamorously affirmed that he had no further financial 
ambitions, and harmony reigned for weeks. In December of 1898 
he wrote his mother a letter — her first news of him in eight years 
— and enclosed a ten-dollar bill. Thereafter, despite his monetary 
caution, he sent his mother at least ten dollars every week for the 
rest of her life. Many times on the road, he once said in a mo- 
ment of rare confidence, he brooded about his former homelife, 
feeling the greatest compassion for his mother in her rigorous 
grind. Besides sending her the ten-dollar allotment, he was to 
brighten her life in many ways during the next few years. And, as 
is not uncommon in hard-boiled people with a soft streak, he 
did it on the sly, loudly denying that he would lift a ringer for 
his family. 

In Akron, Ohio, which was near Kent, Fields telephoned his 
old benefactor, the ticket agent, and invited him to attend a per- 
formance. The man came over, bursting with pleasure and vindi- 
cation, and took a strong paternal interest in the entire evening's 
proceedings, calling Fields "son," lending counsel to the manager, 
and escorting the girls back and forth between wings and their 
dressing rooms. "His pride in my success couldn't have been 
greater if I'd been his son," Fields later told a friend, Jim Tully, 
the writer. "Different members of the troupe entertained him 
and made him feel glad that he had once been kind to a member 
of their fraternity." For years afterward, whenever Fields was 
playing near Akron, he looked up the agent, and so did other show 

61 



W. C. Fields 

people. The risky benefaction proved to be reciprocal. Because 
of his connection with Fields, the agent got to be a big man in 
his town, the confidant of celebrities. Citizens of Kent having 
trips to make or freight to transport gave the railroad preferential 
treatment, mainly to catch up on the theater news. The town be- 
came a key point along the line, and the railroad raised the agent's 
salary. 

Irwin's unit played to big business all through the Middle West. 
The troupe was a good one, with several skilled performers, some 
good material, and even two or three pretty girls. Irwin knew that 
he was rarely blessed ; he had, besides these assets, a star without 
star billing — a youngster who was destined for greatness. As a boon 
of this kind, Fields gave mixed satisfaction. He was a restless boon, 
unconvinced that it was better to give than to receive. After a 
performance in Denver, when his act had been especially telling, 
a man for the Post wrote, "Fields was a knockout last night, a 
comic who reaches the heights of juggling perfection ... it is 
said that the engagement of three days will be all too short for 
everybody to see this consummate artist." 

"Fellow in the newspaper here was talking about the show," 
said Fields, when he reached Irwin. "Says 'Fields was a knockout 
last night, a comic who ' " 

"No," said Irwin. 

"I need some new equipment," said Fields. "I was thinking 
maybe if I had a hundred a week I could " 

"No," said Irwin. "We settled this thing in Cincinnati. You're 
not going to get another damned dime out of me!" 

Fields found that, with a salary of a hundred dollars a week, 
his standard of living greatly improved and his outlook freshened. 
But he fell victim to the law of compensation. Though he could 
now afford many things previously denied him, he had a new 
set of worries. It was the old story of the uneasy head with the 

62 



crown, the frightened Croesus. His money bothered him. He 
took to examining bills to make certain they were not counter- 
feit; further, he became suspicious of the Treasury. What if the 
Government fell? Would his greenbacks stand up under the new 
regime? Would they be viewed as tender in another land? Weigh- 
ing everything, he found currency dubious and decided on con- 
version. After exchanging what bills he had, at the nearest bank, 
he asked Irwin to pay him in gold henceforward. 

In 1896, on a dark night in San Francisco, with $210 in gold 
secreted in various recesses of his attire, Fields walked toward his 
hotel, much easier in his mind. As he rounded a vacant corner, 
he was struck with some heavy, blunt instrument — as the police 
later described it — and he slumped to the pavement. When he 
awoke, half an hour later, he found himself stripped of ore. There 
were drawbacks, he observed, even with the mother lode. In the 
words of a Nebraska orator of that year, he had been crucified 
on a cross of gold. Next payday he opened a small bank account, 
the first step in what was to develop into the most outlandish 
savings program in the history of banking. 

Fields' days of want were over. The waif was behind him, 
caught up and transformed in the harsh converter of ambition. He 
was to have wistful moments about his boyhood, but it had slipped 
by without ever actually having existed. Almost from the begin- 
ning, he had known nothing but hardship and abuse. While his 
contemporaries frolicked through the leisurely time of their youth, 
he had fought for his life. That he came through at all was singu- 
lar; that he came through with humor was evidence of courage 
and genius. But in the human a process of hardening can seldom 
be undone, and Fields was to keep his scars. The day never ar- 
rived when he was free from the ghost of poverty. And as is 
common with others, he wasted his worry on the least of his 

63 



W. C Fields 

troubles, for his financial stress was ended, though his artistic and 
personal problems had scarcely begun. His tours with Irwin were 
the last of his nondescript connections. Vaudeville beckoned — 
the unknown road of a new medium stretched before him. For 
Fields it was a golden road and led to fame and fortune. 



6 4 



BOOK ONE: PART TWO 



CHAPTER EIGHT 



A 



.merican vaudeville, the counterpart of Eng-v 
lish "variety," was somewhat younger than Fields, having been 
born in Boston in 1883. The circumstances of its birth are of 
moderate interest, as obstetrics goes. A circus employee, Benjamin 
Franklin Keith, growing tired of bouncing from town to town in 
wagons full of freaks and carnivora, rented an empty candy store 
in Boston and hung out a sign, "Gaiety Museum." His only ex- 
cuses for this enterprise, his sole attractions, were Baby Alice, a 
midget weighing one and a half pounds, and a stuffed mermaid. 
Bostonians, a seafaring people, are presumably blase about mer- 
maids, for they gave the dummy very little time, but they flocked 
in with petty cash to see the midget. Keith was much encouraged 
by the success of his theater; he soon added to his cast a pair of 
comedians, Joe Weber and Lew Fields, and a chicken with a 
human face. 

His bill being thus balanced, the theater continued to prosper. 
Keith was a restless, inventive man, and he branched out rapidly. 
He launched the idea of continuous performances, making it 
possible to pay stage entertainers more money than they could get 
in revues, and he took every step to beguile into his new medium 
all the talented performers of the day. In addition to being pro- 

^5 



W. C. Fields 

gressive, Keith had a bias against smut; as the new acts poured 
into his office, he gave them a good dry cleaning, then turned 
them over to Boston. This was partly instinct and partly caution. 
The city was, and is, known to be handy with its bans, and would 
doubtless have frowned on the smallest jokes about sex, even if 
uttered by a pound-and-a-half midget. 

In 1885 Keith formed a company with Edward F. Albee to 
present at popular prices the startling new musical plays of Gil- 
bert and Sullivan. The next year they began the real estate ac- 
quisitions that were to lead to the largest chain of theaters in the 
world. Their first purchases were the old museum in Providence, 
Low's opera house there, and the Bijou Theatre in Boston. They 
built a theater in Philadelphia. Their new form of amusement 
caught on and swept the country ; by 1 9 1 1 , when Keith died, 
vaudeville was by a considerable margin the most widely attended 
stage entertainment in both this country and Canada. In 1928 
it was estimated that, in the two countries, more than one thou- 
sand vaudeville theaters showed their acts to two million people 
daily. The Keith chain eventually grew to include theaters in 
nearly every American city with as much as 1 00,000 population. 

Simultaneous with the first success of the Keith circuit, other 
chains sprang up in different sections of the country. In Chicago, 
Kohn and Middleton established a theater for vaudeville per- 
formances late in 1886, and in that same year Gustave Walters 
was ready with his Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. Other 
names, most of them in the New York area, came to be identified 
with vaudeville before the turn of the century: F. F. Proctor and 
his Twenty-third Street Theatre; John J. Murdock with the Ma- 
sonic Temple Roof ; Oscar Hammerstein and his Victoria Theatre, 
at Forty-second Street and Broadway; Alex Pantages and his 
Northwest Vaudeville Circuit. In Ohio, Gus Sun started a state- 
wide circuit in 1905. Keith and Proctor combined forces in that 

66 



year to form the United Booking Company, which emerged as 
more or less the clearing house for all bookings. Owners and 
managers everywhere joined this organization, to standardize 
the business, and in 19 16 the performers, protecting their inter- 
ests, organized "The Vaudeville Artists Association." By 1928 
it had more than 15,000 members. 

Working conditions improved, salaries increased, and further 
stars of the opera, the circus, and the dramatic stage ventured 
into the entertainment. Some of these were Sarah Bernhardt; 
Maurice Barrymore and his children, Ethel, Jack and Lionel; 
the Four Cohans, of which George M. Cohan became the best- 
known member; David Warfield; Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew; 
Nazimova ; William Faversham ; and Lenore Ulric. As performers 
continued to be converted, talented comedians began to grace 
the vaudeville stage, among them the Ritz Brothers, Sliding Billy 
Watson, Joe Jackson; Willie West and McGinty, the Marx 
Brothers, Ted Healy and his Stooges; Sweeney and Duffy; Lou 
Holtz; Wheeler and Woolsey; Clark and McCullough; Joe Cook; 
Robert Emmett Keane ; Nat Wills ; and Ben Welch. 

For the most part, vaudeville rested on songs, dances, short 
dramatic sketches and acrobatic turns. The acts followed one an- 
other in quick succession, with no continuity and only a token 
effort at arrangements. It was the custom to open a bill with "a 
dumb act," one which involved no spoken lines, such as tumblers 
or teeterboard specialists, so that the noisy, late entrance of pa- 
trons would have a minimum disturbing effect. In general, similar 
acts were spaced apart, and some attempt was made to build the 
show toward a climax by weighting the latter part of it with the 
most effective performers. The large theaters had a bristling com- 
plement of sets and properties which were available to all the 
visiting artists, but most acts carried the bulk of their own me- 
chanical devices, special scenic effects and additional decorations. 

67 



W. C. Fields 

In and out of the stage doors of these glittering palaces passed 
a continuous parade of gigantic trunks, boxes, crates and other 
luggage, plastered all around with names and labels that seemed 
to the crowd of ever-present stage struck in the street to be the 
very epitome of glamour. 

Fields' enthusiasm over the prospect of changing his employ- 
ment was dampened only slightly by the knowledge that quite a 
few others bearing his last name were seen regularly on the bills, 
threatening possible confusions and detractions. Besides the fa- 
mous Lew Fields, of "Weber and Fields," there were Ben Fields, 
a former newsboy from Pennsylvania, like himself; Harry Fields, a 
comedian dealing in Hebrew dialects; Mrs. Nat Fields, a singer 
and dancer; Joe Fields, a comedian and impersonator; and per- 
haps most popular, as her name suggests, "Happy Fanny" Fields, 
a well-molded dramatic star. It was a spangled company and a 
competitive world, but after thinking it all over, Fields stepped 
onto the colorful scene with optimism and nonchalance. He had 
been through too much to be fretful over failure. By now he 
knew he was good, and he protected his gift with hard layers 
of self-confidence. His first vaudeville booking came from Keith's, 
which operated the most successful existing circuit. A talent scout 
had seen Fields in the Irwin show on a night in Chicago when 
the audience had been especially stimulating. By a happy chance 
Irwin's tour was scheduled to end there several days later. 

The scout, who was also one of the owners of the circuit, called 
at Fields' dressing room. The boy juggler was removing his 
make-up, and the man was aghast at his youthful appearance. 
"Why, you're only a kid!" he said. 

"State your business, my friend," said Fields, carefully folding 
a putty nose into a handkerchief and placing it in a drawer. The 
Keith's man replied that he had watched Fields' turn and had 
found it (as Fields later reported) "a fair attraction." Gaining 

68 



confidence in the presence of an obvious stripling, he then of- 
fered Fields sixty-five dollars a week. But he had sadly misjudged 
his man. When he asked what Fields was getting with Irwin, 
Fields replied, "A hundred and seventy-five a week," a gross lie. 

Staggered, the scout expressed an opinion that the figure repre- 
sented twenty-five or thirty dollars more than Irwin himself was 
making. 

"A very equitable arrangement," Fields said. 

After a great deal of haggling, during which the Keith's man 
grew increasingly nettled and began to wish he were dealing with 
an older and mellower head, a salary of $125 a week was agreed 
on. But when the scout turned to go, Fields indicated that the 
conference was not quite over. 

"About the billing," he said. 

"Why, we take care of the billing," exclaimed the scout. 

"Only in a general way," said Fields. "The fact is, I've decided 
to be billed as 'W. C. Fields, the Distinguished Comedian.' " 

"We bill you as a juggler," said the unfortunate from Keith's. 
"Damn it all, you couldn't be a day over nineteen. What do you 
mean, 'Distinguished'?" 

"Good day," said Fields, lighting a cigar. 

"W. C. Fields, the Distinguished Comedian," cried the scout, 
and ran out of the room like a rabbit. 

Fields was pleased with the new announcements. He clipped 
several from newspapers and sent them to his boyhood friends, 
who had not heard from him in years. "Vanity can be excused 
when you are young," he once said of these communications. 
The truth is that Fields was eternally grateful for his friends' 
succor in the black time of his flight. As the years wore on, he 
began to realize that he might literally have starved had the boys 
not kept him supplied in the first difficult months. One of the 
Samaritans, when an old man, wrote Fields asking for a note to 

69 



W. C. Fields 

show that they had been friends in Philadelphia. He mentioned 
the Orlando Social Club, alluded to the "bunk" where Fields 
had crouched miserably, and ended on the rather wistful note that 
he wished he'd sought out a bunk of his own. Fields wrote his old 
chum a long, nostalgic letter rapturously affirming their friend- 
ship, and signed it, with a grandiloquent flourish, "Whitey Dukin- 
field." 

Fields' vaudeville opening took place, for some reason, in Co- 
lumbus, Ohio. He juggled a number of tennis balls and hats, 
nearly dropping several, as the audience saw it, but comically re- 
trieved them, to great applause, just in time. He balanced some 
sticks on his toes and fingers, and then did the act he had been 
working on with the cigar boxes. As one writer viewed the latter 
routine, it was "his masterpiece — a trick of juggling twenty-five 
cigar boxes, end on end, with a little rubber ball on top. First the 
ball was dropped and caught in his other hand; then each box 
followed in succession, the top one falling with machine-like 
precision without disturbing the boxes beneath it. It was a wow !" 

Although Fields had previously appeared in Columbus, the 
town had never seen him juggle. It was acquainted with his work 
in a different capacity, that is, as it was brought to bear on the 
role of a rascally sawmill operator. During his first road tour, the 
man who normally played the part suffered an attack of poison- 
ing, in a saloon, and Fields took over, temporarily foregoing the 
juggling. For once he was splendidly effective as a straightaway 
dramatic performer. In the scene, a notably luscious ingenue found 
herself strapped to the usual conveyor belt of the period, and 
Fields, as the rogue, was intent on dividing her into slabs of a 
more convenient size. It happened that the girl in question, off- 
stage, had not only consistently repulsed Fields' advances for 
weeks, but had once threatened to summon the police. Fields 
handled the saw with finesse. It was only of wooden construction, 

7o 



with no teeth worthy of the name, but it unquestionably would 
have raised hob with her skin. The girl's shrieks, as she lay 
strapped to the plank, were heart-rending; more than once the 
audience thanked heaven it was all in fun. 

Receiving, as he did, $125 a week, a gigantic sum for a boy of 
nineteen in those days, Fields was vexed with his old trouble 
about idle cash. He already had one bank account, in California, 
but to go out and back was obviously too long a trip to make a 
deposit. Worried and remembering his unhappy experience with 
the gold, he finally devised a scheme. He would open a bank 
account everywhere he went. He began with the large cities, 
placing twenty dollars here and ten there, and worked on down 
to banks that occupied, perhaps, a corner of a feed store in a 
crossroads village. Sometimes he hopped off trains and opened 
an account while an engine took on water. He piled the bank- 
books in a corner of his wardrobe trunk, and, for the most part, 
forgot them. As it turned out, it was a curious program, for the 
time was never to come, as long as he lived, when Fields was to 
need any of the deposited money. On two or three occasions 
only, he went over the books, cleaned out many accounts, and 
concentrated the money in larger banks, but he never changed 
the system as a general savings plan. At one time he had, he said, 
700 accounts in banks all over the world. After his death his 
executors located thirty accounts. Some of his friends, such as 
Dave Chasen, Gene Fowler, and Billy Grady, who acted as Fields' 
agent for fourteen years and is currently casting director for 
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, think that thousands of dollars of Fields' 
money today lies fallow in banks under spurious names. "I think 
he lost at least $50,000 in the Berlin bombing," Fowler says. "He 
had bank accounts, or at least safe-deposit boxes, in such cities 
as London, Paris, Sydney, Cape Town, and Suva. I do not know 
this for a fact, but I think that much of his fortune still rests in 

7i 



W. C. Fields 

safe-deposit boxes about which, deliberately or not, he said noth- 
ing. 

There were two reasons for Fields' banking system. Primarily, 
he saw it as a way to discourage thievery, a breach of the moral 
code he detested in others. Second, he was, he felt, building up 
safeguards against being stranded. By now he had the full-fledged 
phobia about poverty that remained with him to the end of his 
days. He often had a dream, he once told a friend, in which he 
found himself penniless and starving in an unfriendly wayside 
settlement. "I'd stolen some bread or something," he said, "and 
everybody was after me — police and dogs were coming and there 
was a big hullabaloo. I used to wake up in a cold sweat. But then 
I'd see it was a dream and I'd say to myself, forget it — you've 
probably got a bank account in that town." 

As a rule Fields opened the accounts and took the safe-deposit 
boxes in his own name, but he was known to hint darkly about 
scattered riches controlled by such people as Figley E. Whitesides, 
Sneed Hearn, and Dr. Otis Guelpe — names for which he some- 
times expressed a fancy in other connections. Throughout his 
life, Fields rarely spoke of his accounts to people other than his 
secretaries or his lawyers, and then only if necessary for business 
reasons. The occasions were few and far between when he even 
mentioned his possessions to friends. Once, he told of his infre- 
quent visits to a small bank in Iowa, which had an exceedingly 
gullible and friendly teller. Fields liked to drop in every three 
or four years to add a small deposit to his capital. The teller, a 
middle-aged, myopic man, greeted him with warmth and curi- 
osity. "Account of Professor Curtis T. Bascom?" he'd say, and 
squint at Fields. "Why, dear me, Professor Bascom ! Delighted to 
see you again. Now, tell me, where have you been this trip?" 
Thus provided an opening, Fields would dilate entertainingly 
on his recent expedition up the Amazon after an almost extinct 

7* 



species of three-legged ostrich. The teller would listen raptly aa 
he dwelled, in detail, on the expedition's struggles with cholera, 
head-hunters, crocodiles, women, ticks, witch doctors, booze, 
quicksand and missionaries. When Fields had concluded, the 
teller would ask respectfully about the next trip. "We're going 
into the Arctic," Fields would tell him. "We've fitted out an ex- 
pedition to hunt the northern Mexican hairless — for scientific 
purposes, of course. See you around 1906, if we come through." 

"Good-by," the teller would cry, much affected. "The best of 
luck, Professor Bascom!" 

In this phase, Fields, at nineteen, enjoyed talking, and espe- 
cially lying, offstage. Perhaps this was because he had quit talk- 
ing onstage. With Fulton, and part of the time with Irwin, he 
had not only talked in dramatic roles but had accompanied his 
juggling with patter. When he began to get the upper hand of 
Irwin, he abandoned the patter, for some reason he never cleared 
up. One of his public utterances on the subject, in 1926, was 
ambiguous and elliptical : "When I began, I used to do what we 
called a 'dumb act.' That is, I didn't talk: it was all dumb show. 
Then I started using lines to help get the laughs. For I want to 
emphasize this point: even when I seemed to be just drifting 
along, without any particular purpose to guide me, I did have a 
definite desire." His desire was, of course, to become a comedian, 
but why he decided to approach it silently, around the turn of 
the century, none of his friends knew. The best guess is that 
Fields, who, as he said, was always looking into the future though 
he seemed to be proceeding haphazardly, had his eye on a Euro- 
pean tour. International bookings were denied to many kinds 
of American vaudeville, because of the difference in languages; 
straight juggling obviously carried no such handicap. "The im- 
portant post of closing the first half fell to W. C. Fields, a 'dumb 
act,' " said Variety of one of Fields' early vaudeville appearances. 

73 



W. C. Fields 

"Why Mr. Fields does not speak is quite simple — his comedy 
speaks for him." 

In the next few years Fields' act became one of the most popu- 
lar vaudeville was ever to know. It was the period of his swiftest 
development. With the warm praise of each fresh audience his 
touch grew surer. He knew where he was going, and he was 
in more of a hurry than ever. On the road tours, with a little 
money for the first time, he permitted himself some well-earned 
relaxation, squiring the ladies and throwing the saloons a little 
custom now and then. Upon his start in vaudeville he returned 
to his man-killing practice. In the evenings, in his room, he took 
up the laborious polishing that had made his work distinguished. 
Often he stood beside his bed and tossed objects into the air until 
he fell over, in a sort of coma, and slept the night through with- 
out extinguishing the light. "Usually," he said, "I could tell when 
to quit. When I got so tired I began to drop everything, the per- 
son below beat on the radiator and I knocked off." 

Once, in a hotel in Pittsburgh, Fields, still in his street clothes, 
was on the point of mastering a difficult feat and continued after 
the warning thumps. The trick involved a sizable crockery jar 
which he had found in his room, and there were indications, he 
said, that as it kept falling it jarred considerable of the plaster 
loose down below. The hour was around 3 a.m., and there can 
be no doubt that sleep, on the lower level, was, for anyone with 
normal hearing, awkward. Presently, the subordinate tenant, a 
giant of a man, sprinted upstairs in his nightshirt, whacked on 
Fields' door, and accosted him bitterly. Fields had thrown the 
door open with his usual injured fury, determined to bluff it out, 
but his first glance told him that this was no ordinary mortal. Ex- 
pecting to be floored, if not actually murdered, he stepped back 
promptly, but the man's expression changed as he said, with a 
certain deference, "Ain't you the feller that was juggling to the 

74 



the-ater tonight?" Fields replied in the affirmative, then asked 
him how he knew, saying, "As you see, I haven't got my tramp 
costume on now." 

"Oh, I don 3 t know, 5 ' said the man in an admiring tone. "Some- 
how, you look like you still got it on." 

Fields' feeling were hurt, but he agreed to teach the visitor a 
juggling trick, choosing a simple one that called for two paring 
knives. "I hope he worked at it," Fields said afterward, "because 
if he did, he was almost certain to cut himself very painfully." 



75 



CHAPTER WNE 



K 



'ot long after he entered vaudeville, Fields had an 
experience which disturbed him profoundly. Walking the streets 
of a Midwestern city, between shows, he saw a movie marquee 
luridly advertising an epic film on venereal disease. Although, as 
is usually the case with these offerings, the letters screamed the 
pitfalls of sex, the lobby photos of half-dressed women were down- 
right attractive, if not bothersome. Bosomy madames lounged in 
unlighted hallways, teen-age girls drew sailors toward the fatal 
couch, and there was evidence of gay, subsidiary sins, such as 
drinking and smoking. For the authorities' sake, the message was 
indisputably present, but on the outside it rang of a harmless 
bacchanal. 

Fields immediately bought a ticket and went in, hoping to see 
some naked women. His first view fell somewhat short of his ex- 
pectations, being concerned with an elderly male wreck in the 
last stages of syphilis. If the fellow was one of the sailors in the 
lobby, Fields concluded, he had indeed descended far and had 
much better stuck to his ship, or played chess at the Seamen's 
Hall. None of the women ever turned up, or, if they did, they 
looked different, no longer emphasizing the well-turned breast 
or alabaster thigh but exuding, now, a very real menace. Fields 

76 



was disgusted ; he had paid forty cents for a seat down near the 
front, and he felt that he had been skinned. He started to leave, but 
the next caption froze him in his spot. "You, too, can wind up 
in a place like this!" it said, and he leaned back, thinking maybe 
they were coming to the brothel. But it was a hospital room, con- 
taining a man, a formerly well-to-do cobbler, so the screen said, 
who, in a moment of weakness, possibly after surveying a lobby 
display for a venereal-disease film, had visited a bawdy house 
and was now in an outrageous condition and past any hope of 
salvage. Fields stayed on. He hadn't any place else to go, so he 
traveled the whole celluloid trail, from one clinical horror to an- 
other. He was, finally, impressed, not only by the eroded state 
of the people involved, but by the alarming statistics. Since the 
discovery of sex, some years ago, venereal disease has offered the 
statistician a highly enjoyable meadow for exercise. Within an 
hour or so Fields was pretty certain that his case had been cov- 
ered by one of the broadsides, which went, in a very general way, 
"Eighty-two per cent of all white, Protestant males between the 
heights of five feet two and six feet eight are exposed to syphilis 
on an average of eleven times a year in public drinking places," 
and "Three out of every twenty-seven Chinese coolies past ninety 
who arrived in San Francisco from 1862 to 1864 showed pos- 
sible symptoms of inherited gonorrhea." When Fields came out 
of the theater, he hurried past the lobby display without looking 
back. "I was afraid of turning to saltpeter," he said later. Years 
afterward, he told his secretary in Hollywood, Magda Michael, 
about seeing this picture. Though he described it lightly, he ad- 
mitted that it permanently altered his outlook. So vivid was the 
experience that he even recalled the incidental music that played 
during the scenes. "It was from Tschaikovsky's Swan Lake," he 
said. "I could never hear that damned thing again without want- 
ing to take a Wassermann." 

77 



W. C. Fields 

Before he saw the movie, Fields had never been a promiscuous 
youth, fixing his attentions on one girl at a time and then only if 
she weren't likely to interfere with business or cost him anything. 
Afterward he became notably chaste. During his vaudeville 
years he was often "going with" some girl, invariably an actress 
or other theatrical performer, but he never pursued women in- 
discriminately. Fields was, in fact, far from a lecherous man. 
Despite his brassy latter-day publicity as a gaudy spirit and all- 
around rip, he had many quaint and old-fashioned ideas about 
women. For instance, he preferred that women wear petticoats. 
One time when he was ill and hospitalized at Las Encinas Sani- 
tarium, in Pasadena, he took exception to his nurses' attire. Lying 
in his bed, and keeping a watchful eye on what went on around 
him, as was his custom, he had taken note of various patches of 
pelt when the young ladies leaned over for a swab or a bottle of 
pills. He called in the superintendent. "See here," he said, "I'm 
paying this place fifty dollars a day and I want you to put all the 
nurses that come into this room in petticoats. My mother wore 
them, and her mother before her — it's the only decent garb for a 
woman." The sanitarium agreed, and his nurses self-consciously 
put on petticoats. 

Fields was always painfully embarrassed whenever anybody 
told off-color jokes in the presence of women. Dirty stories 
bothered him at any time; he considered further that a reliance 
upon manufactured anecdotes of whatever kind was positive 
indication of a crippled wit. His face underwent awesome changes 
at the accursed social preamble of "Here's a hell of a funny story 
I picked up the other day." In a mixed gathering, if some man, 
stimulated by gin and the dubious charm of his own narrative 
style, began an uproarious sex joke, Fields often retired to the 
bathroom, or began a vacant search for matches. He could never 
abide loud, vulgar women, and he was vastly uneasy around a 

78 



woman who drank. Invariably, when a woman, whether a cotil- 
lion leader or a fishwife, entered a room he was in, he performed 
the pretty rite of standing up. Once, his old friend and former 
agent, Billy Grady, called at Fields' home, bringing a lady he 
wished to present. The day was warm, and Fields, at the moment, 
was upstairs behind his table-high desk, entirely nude. Grady 
and his lady came up without knocking or ringing the bell. When 
they burst into the study, Grady began, "Bill, I want you to 
meet " then stopped, furious. Fields was rising slowly, wear- 
ing only an expression of regal punctilio. He executed a courtly 
half bow and said, "Pray come in. I'm delighted to see you." 
Relating this anecdote, another of Fields' friends said, "Bill was 
full of scruples about women, all right, but he never allowed any- 
thing to take precedence over humor." 

His regard for humor infrequently led Fields to introduce a 
double-entendre into his work, but it could scarcely have been ob- 
jectionable to the fussiest censor. He liked to contrive situations 
wherein he and a sexless crone exchanged pleasantries of an 
amorous and slightly appalling kind. When he and a dowager 
entered a game room in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, she 
asked, with an arch look, "By the way, how is your ping-pong?" 
and Fields replied, in a mildly bragging tone, "Pretty good, how's 
yours?" The notion that anything might come of this was, of 
course, rejected by an audience as preposterous beyond the 
dreams of vulgarity. Fields' tete-a-tetes with Mae West in My 
Little Chickadee reached such absurd heights of hyperbole that 
they were effectively removed from the romantic. The truth is 
that Fields always viewed romance in a pretty comical light. In 
Chickadee he enjoyed a scene in which he climbed a ladder to 
Miss West's boudoir, disguised as her masked lover. "I played it 
straight," he told an inquisitive friend who hadn't seen the pic- 
ture. It was a sensitive and venturesome meeting, in the classical 

79 



W. C. Fields 

spirit of Leander paddling toward Hero. Ascending the ladder v 
Fields had trouble with his mask, which kept slipping, and when 
he entered the room, the eager maid rushed forward just as he 
poked his rather chilling nose through the gap and began a series 
of low-comedy endearments in a hoarse, asthmatic whine. This 
scene pleased Fields, but he preferred a later one in which, again 
through mistaken identity, he reclined in the half dark with a 
goat. 

In the beginning, in vaudeville, Fields played, besides the 
Orpheum Circuit, such places as Henderson's Coney Island, 
Brighton Beach, and Custer and Black's Music Hall, all in New 
York, and Poli's Circuit, which extended into New England. 
After his first success with Keith's, he was booked, off and on, by 
the William Morris Agency, which, together with other agencies, 
kept him gainfully employed. Unlike many vaudeville performers, 
Fields managed, by skillfully juggling both agents and managers, 
to avoid delays between bookings. He conceived a horror of the 
brotherhood's familiar lament, "Between Engagements," or "At 
Liberty," that showed up in pathetic brevity all too often in the 
theatrical publications Billboard and Variety. Even when he was 
middle-aged, wealthy and famous, he became furtive and uneasy 
if unemployed for long. Idleness always revived his old fears, re- 
turning him to his starvation days — never a very long trip, in his 
mind. 

In San Francisco, again with Keith's, he had some imposing 
professional pictures made at Bushnell's, which was the most 
popular shop of its kind in those days. As pointed out by John 
Chapman, in his newspaper features about Fields, Bushnell's was 
rated above New York photographic shops because it showed that 
a performer was important enough to travel. Pictures inscribed 
"Bushnell's, San Francisco" and standing outside a theater 

80 



lobby gave an artist special distinction; other artists, who didn't 
have pictures from Bushnell's, looked up to him. In San Fran- 
cisco, Fields also bought a diamond ring, an acquisition he had 
planned for some time. It was a good-sized stone, costing several 
hundred dollars, and showed up well, on a sunny day, for two or 
three blocks. Fields wore it with a princely air, somewhat tem- 
pered by his fear of having it snatched. Entering a high-class 
restaurant, he would exhibit the ring in a series of dazzling, flam- 
boyant gestures, then eat with his ring hand tucked into his 
waistcoat, meanwhile darting quick, suspicious looks here and 
there, with particular reference to the waiters. 

As the money rolled in, Fields cultivated manorial tastes. He 
had fed on things like saloon herring and ditch water so long that 
he welcomed an opportunity to be fastidious. While other vaude- 
ville people reposed in humble, traditional lodgings, Fields put 
up at the best hotels. Not for him the crowded trough of the 
boardinghouse, the shabby resorts of the theater. From town to 
town he dined richly, in the favored cafes of the bourbons. With 
his inborn pomp and fakery, he rapidly became a master at the 
impressive nuances of table skill. Customarily languid diners 
nudged one another in admiration of his style. He was patently 
born to the purple, and his manner was condescending. "This 
sauce," he would cry, waving toward a resplendent casserole. 
"Has the chef by some mischance omitted the paprika?" A waiter, 
stung, would bow low, and the gourmet's neighbors, eying their 
Newburg, would nibble and test in confusion. Fields always said 
that, in this era, he didn't believe he was making out too well 
with the waiters. They complied, but they gave him searching 
looks. He felt, also, that they emphasized "Sir" a little heavily 
and, on occasion, bowed too low. Like dogs, waiters seemed 
familiar with his past. 

In the first months of his vaudeville, Fields had an urge to ex- 

81 



W. C. Fields 

pand his act, and he remembered his former employment in the 
pool hall. At the same time, he recalled an act he had seen in 
recent years, in which a Professor Devereaux performed with 
trick billiard devices. The professor, Fields now understood 
vaguely, had retired. After a good deal of figuring with a pencil 
and a notebook, he consulted a manufacturer of vaudeville equip- 
ment in New York. The upshot of this visit was Fields' celebrated 
pool table, which, with its owner, was to convulse audiences all 
over the world. It was built in sections, to be easily transportable, 
and had an ingenious system of invisible strings, to provide the 
master perfect control over the balls. 

For several weeks Fields spent nearly all his waking offstage 
minutes practicing with the table. He added equipment as he 
thought of it. At first he had intended to work with an ordinary 
cue, but a few weeks later he had a better idea — he would use one 
full of twists and bends, in a condition roughly comparable to that 
of an alpine shepherd's crook. As a ball racker, he had witnessed 
the ritual care with which the customers took their cues down 
from the rack, hefting them, rolling them on the table, and sight- 
ing down their length, to be sure they were true. It was his purpose, 
he said, in addition to being merely funny, to present the ultimate 
commentary on pool-hall mannerisms. There was a possibility, he 
admitted, that some members of his audiences, such as cloistered 
ladies and others who had not had all the advantages, would be 
unfamiliar with pool-hall behavior, but he hoped that, when 
they saw him, they would hasten to repair their education. "We 
must strive to instruct and uplift as well as entertain," he told a 
manager who timorously questioned the social worth of the pool 
table. 

After long sessions of pruning and polishing, Fields opened with 
his new act at the fashionable Orpheum in Boston. It was a 
risky tryout, because the average upper-class Bostonian, as is well 

8a 



known, spends comparatively little time in pool halls. Neverthe- 
less, Fields' trick table was received with thunderous, low-bred 
applause. From the moment he walked on, in his rags, and se- 
lected his ridiculous cue, he was reassured about the value of 
esoteric parody. He rolled, or attempted to roll, the cue on the 
table, but it only bumped and clattered. Then, perplexed, he held 
it to his eye, his expression indicating an incipient awareness that 
the stick was not altogether straight. His manipulation of the 
balls seemed uncanny. At one prodigious whack from the un- 
lovely cue, they would scramble over the table and dive into the 
pockets like rats. Or, again, as the old New York Star said of a 
subsequent performance, the way he made them "carom around 
the table and land in his capacious hip pocket is an amazing 
revelation in the art of billiards." 

Despite his back-alley garb, Fields' gestures were majestic as 
he pursued the significant game. No stylized flourish escaped his 
attention. He stooped low as he studied the lie of the balls, he 
broke off his aim to shift, ever so slightly, the irrelevant position 
of the chalk, and he dropped all holds to flick a disturbing ash 
off the end of his splayed cigar. Over a period of forty-five years, 
he was to alter the act constantly, in little ways. Basically, it re- 
mained the same — a burlesque, or parody, or satire, or caricature, 
or travesty, dealing with a thoroughly unimportant institution. 
The last performance of the act was in the wartime movie revue, 
Follow the Boys, which was released in 1944. When first ap- 
proached about redoing his old sketch for the film, Fields was 
reluctant, even crotchety. He didn't like movie revues, he said. 
They turned out to be meaningless hodgepodges, with strings of 
imposing names, and were run off with such kaleidoscopic speed 
that audiences reeled away glassy-eyed and exhausted. When he 
was told that the act would be a fine morale builder for American 

83 



W. C. Fields 

boys in places like El Alamein and Guadalcanal, he capitulated. 
Sitting beside his radio, he had followed the war from day to day 
with choleric and profane interest. He asked the studio (Univer- 
sal) to engage Eddie Sutherland, who had directed several of his 
movies, to direct the shooting of his pool act. 

On the set, Fields decided that, to recapture his old vim, he 
needed an audience, and the scene was rigged so that, in the 
story, he was performing for a roomful of troops. By special dis- 
pensation of a post commander, the troops used were actually 
men from a nearby army camp. Fields found this situation con- 
genial and stimulating. As the cameras ground, he walked onto 
the set, wearing a frayed business suit and an antique straw hat 
from his own wardrobe and absently humming an unmelodic air. 
He started when he saw the audience, as if something had been 
put over on him, and took down the warped cue with his familiar 
look of persecuted dismay. Then he went about trying to poke 
the end of the cue through a loop formed by his left forefinger 
and thumb. With his face hideously contorted, he chased the 
needless loop around the room, finally cornered it, and settled 
down to sawing for his aim. As in former years, he interrupted this 
several times to move the chalk, whose position offended his 
sensitive eye. Then, having fixed on the precise angle, he lunged 
forward, tripped, and opened a two-foot rip in the fabric. Mutter- 
ing indistinct threats against various fictitious persons, he began 
to thrust at the balls savagely, shooting them all in with a single, 
unlikely blow on two or three occasions. At last, clearing the table 
of all but three balls, he announced to the audience, with delicate 
enunciation, "A difficult massee shot." As he hauled himself up 
on tiptoes and raised his cue to the vertical, his expression clearly 
revealed that the troops were in the presence of a great moment. 
Then, after a dramatic pause, he drove violently downward, 
knocked a sizable portion out of the center of the table, and 

8 4 



jammed his arm in up to the shoulder. He viewed the disaster 
with mild, baffled concern, and the curtain fell. 

So enthusiastic were the troops, at the conclusion of his old act, 
that Fields came back for several curtain calls, in the best vaude- 
ville tradition. As he removed his straw hat for the last applause 
that was ever to greet, in person, one of the most celebrated funny 
routines in the history of the stage, Fields' eyes, according to a 
bystander, were "suspiciously moist." "He seemed to know he 
would never do it again," a studio employee says. 

"Bill had slowed up the act about a third since I first directed 
it," Eddie Sutherland recalls. "But, even so, we finished shooting 
in a day and a half." As Fields left the lot, several people thanked 
him for his fine patriotic effort. and said how much good the 
scene would do. He shook their hands with self-conscious pleasure, 
went to the cashier and collected the $25,000 he had agreed on, 
then shuffled off toward his car, whistling a soundless tune, his 
eyes fixed on the distant horizon. 



% 



CHAPTER TEN 



I 



n 1 90 1, after a brief but wildly successful appren- 
ticeship in American vaudeville, Fields had an offer for a Euro- 
pean tour. He was much pleased. For some time he had looked 
forward to getting away from this country. Born with a compul- 
sive urge for flight, he felt happiest when he was out in front of 
some imaginary pack. As his ship, the old White Star liner Ivernia, 
drew away from the wharf, he knew that his pursuers of a 
hungrier era — dogs, police, Chinamen, barkeeps, irate house- 
holders, bereft butchers, and an occasional father — would have 
the devil of a time catching him now, and he relaxed. "I had 
the feeling that I was leaving my troubles behind," he told a 
friend. Although Fields no longer had any critical troubles, he 
still harbored the uneasy notion that somebody was after him. In 
the complex garden of his mind stood a bothersome weed patch 
of guilt — the harvest of his multiple transgressions. As he grew 
more successful, the guilt flourished, and he became propor- 
tionately more suspicious of his fellows. 

His first foreign engagement was at the Palace in London. He 
used a modest billing, a compound of his favorites: "Wm. C. 
Fields, the Distinguished Comedian & Greatest Juggler on Earth, 
Eccentric Tramp." He added the "m" to his first initial, he said, as 

86 



a kind of overseas fillip, for dignity. The English audiences re- 
ceived him with the greatest generosity. By American standards, 
and most others, the average Briton's idea of humor is a fairly dark 
and embarrassing business. One of England's best-loved critics re- 
viewed Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, upon its publica- 
tion, in a perfectly sober and disgusted vein. The book was full of 
exaggerations, the critic said, and was, in his opinion, worthless 
as a travel guide. He took exception to Twain's finding, in the 
Colosseum at Rome, a yellowed program of an evening's enter- 
tainment, giving a line-up of Christians about to face the lions, 
and other events. It was unlikely, said the critic, that any such 
bill could have survived all these years in the Colosseum dust. 
An American publisher later printed the criticism, together with 
Twain's sulphurous letter of reply, in an anthology, where they 
will remain for all time as an interlocking tribute to the literal 
mind. 

Fields had been forewarned about Englishmen and humor, and 
he approached his first performance in a taut condition. But his 
worry was energy wasted; everything he did was received with 
clamorous appreciation. In fact, the English were so nice to 
Fields, both on stage and off, that the law of diminishing returns 
started to set in. Their politeness bothered him; daily it grew 
more onerous. At length he took a short trip to Ireland, where 
he'd heard that people were occasionally rude. 

When he returned, Fields could no longer resist his impulse to 
take advantage of the English. Strolling about, he had observed 
dressed fowls hanging outside poulterers' shops, a negligent form 
of display, he reflected, that would have meant certain bank- 
ruptcy in his old Philadelphia days. He bought a cheap but 
commodious knapsack and began to take walking tours. His line 
of march was concentrated in the areas heaviest with poultry 
shops. Wending his friendly way, he carefully filled the sack, 

87 



W . C. Fields 

abstracting a hen here, rejecting a partridge there — making, all 
in all, a pleasant and profitable holiday. It was a kind of proc- 
essed poaching, and done at a time when the British poaching 
laws were quite severe. Fields himself said he sat in a courtroom 
where a woman was given a stiffish sentence for poaching eggs. 
Fields had no particular need for the fowls ; stealing them merely 
represented, in his mind, another foolproof method of staying 
ahead. He had graduated from larceny several years before, but 
he did not consider lifting poultry from Englishmen stealing. The 
fowls were obviously hung outdoors to be removed, he said. Ig- 
noring them would have been an implied criticism of British 
advertising methods, and he did not wish to offend. Out of sen- 
timent, Fields kept the knapsack all his life; it was made the 
subject of a Paramount publicity release in 1933. 

The lopsided romance between Fields and the English con- 
tinued, off and on, for years. On subsequent tours, at each un- 
usual expression of their good manners, he worked out some 
compensating mischief. Notably, he devised a complicated scheme 
to beat stationmasters out of the fee for excess luggage. Fields 
was traveling with two wardrobe trunks at the time, and it irked 
him to cough up funds outside of his fare. In America one could 
occasionally check any amount of impedimenta on a single ticket. 
He always enjoyed bragging about tricking the stationmasters, ex- 
plaining, somewhat unclearly, that the economy had involved his 
buying the official a glass of beer while some confederate shoved 
the cases into a baggage car. "It saved me many a pretty penny," 
Fields used to say. 

In reminiscent humors he related that he had made a profound 
study of English psychology. While on the tours he had often 
demonstrated his knowledge to some unbelieving companion. 
Once, preparing to board a train with another American, he 
discoursed at length on the Englishman's courteous inadequacy 

88 



in the face of bad manners, and went on to prove his point. Ask- 
ing the American to stand by, he entered a first-class compart- 
ment marked "Reserved for Mr. Ashcroft." Fields unhooked the 
sign, tossed it on the floor, opened a newspaper, and, sitting 
down, began to read with an attitude of imperial nonchalance. A 
moment later a trainman came along and said, "I'm sorry, sir, 
but this space is reserved." 

Without glancing up, Fields waved him away. 

"It's reserved, sir," insisted the trainman. "The sign's fallen 
on the floor." 

"I'm reading," said Fields. "Go along, now, and don't inter- 
rupt." 

"If you wouldn't mind, sir," said the trainman, "I think I'd 
better summon the conductor." 

Fields continued to read. The conductor arrived and said, in a 
familiar vein, "Beg your pardon, sir, but this space is reserved." 

"What's the meaning of this outrage?" demanded Fields, quiv- 
ering with indignation. 

"There's been some mixup," said the conductor. "The space is 
reserved for Mr. Ashcroft. Tall man with a yellow goatee." 

"This is my seat!" cried Fields. "Bought and paid for. Leave! 
Be off!" 

The conductor removed his hat and mopped his face ; then he 
said, "I hardly know what course to take. Perhaps I'd better sum- 
mon a constable, sir. This is a little out of my line." 

With a look of pious vindication, Fields returned to his paper. 

A couple of minutes later the conductor returned, with the 
trainman, a constable, and the unhappy Ashcroft. A general con- 
sultation was held, while Fields, deep in concentration, caught up 
on an item about a Hyde Park matron who had suffered a gastric 
setback after gorging on tainted kippers. 

"See here," sputtered Ashcroft at last. "You've got my seat, 
you know." 

89 



W. C. Fields 

"The sign's right there on the floor," added the conductor, 
pointing. 

"Most irregular," agreed the constable. 

"Depart!" cried Fields. "Vacate my compartment immedi- 
ately! Why, damnation, I wouldn't be surprised if this was ac- 
tionable!" 

The group drew off to inspect him in bewilderment. The 
conductor was nonplused, and so was the constable ; neither, they 
acknowledged, could remember a case drawn along exactly 
similar lines. 

"By your leave," said the trainman to the conductor, "there 
was that matter three year ago in Dulwich — a greengrocer in the 
second-class coach next to the rear." 

"Not the same," said the conductor, with asperity. "Not the 
same thing at all!" 

"Before my time," said the constable. "Unless mistaken I was 
in Brixton then, or was it Norwood?" 

"It's a puzzler, all right," said the trainman. 

In a little while they trailed off to find Mr. Ashcroft another 
seat. Still reading the paper, Fields waved his companion in, and 
shortly afterward the train left on its journey to Edinburgh. 

As Fields grew older and mellower he loved to talk about the 
English. They were a hardy and inexplicable race, he felt, and full 
of admirable, civilized qualities. Sitting in Dave Chasen's restau- 
rant, with a few close friends, he would expound the anecdote 
about Mr. Ashcroft and the train seat, speaking in expert dialect 
and illustrating his talk with what struck him as typically English 
gestures. His philosophy of "Never Give a Sucker an Even 
Break," which he often stated but seldom practiced, gained its 
first real impetus in England. 

Fields had acquired the philosophy in the first place from a 
well-known American confidence man of the period, "Doc" 

90 



Atterbury, whose eminence in his chosen line was roughly com- 
parable to that, later on, of One-Eyed Connolly in the gate- 
crashing dodge. Atterbury had a manner which he had borrowed 
jointly from the Czar of Russia and Ghengis Khan. His assump- 
tive, princely arrogance seemed to Fields, on the few occasions 
when the two had met, the very crest of elegance. All children 
have their heroes, and Fields tried to model himself after the 
doctor, whose claim to the professional title, incidentally, derived 
from the fact that he had been widely jailed in connection with 
peddling a nostrum compounded, according to United States 
agents, of kerosene, spring water and lye, that was guaranteed, if 
applied either locally or internally, to clear up things like tuber- 
culosis and fractures. 

Fields' experiment with Ashcroft was largely an imitation of 
an English encounter that Atterbury once had, in Fields' presence. 
Atterbury had taken a seat on a train and lit a cigar, in violation 
of the rules, as stated clearly in every car. A stranger on the op- 
posite seat demurred, pointing to the sign. Gazing serenely out of 
the window, Atterbury continued to smoke, pausing only to flick 
off his ash. The stranger became increasingly upset and argu- 
mentative. At length he pulled out a card and cried, "Perhaps you 
don't know who I am, sir?" Atterbury 's scrutiny of the landscape 
was undisturbed, but the complainant succeeded in forcing the 
card between two of his fingers, after which Atterbury put the 
card in his vest pocket. At this moment the conductor arrived, 
and the stranger, arising, burst into an impassioned protest. When 
he had finished, the conductor began a reproachful lecture. At- 
terbury, still studying the countryside, abstractedly drew out the 
card and handed it over. "Oh, that's different, sir," said the con- 
ductor, and led the stranger away, promising to find him a seat 
elsewhere. 

Fields maintained that his own heckling of the English was 

9i 



W. C. Fields 

done in no spirit of meanness or contempt but was actually a form 
of reverence. "I was merely acknowledging their breeding," he 
said. "You don't think I would have stolen chickens in the 
Balkans, do you?" he sometimes added in an injured tone. Dis- 
tinctions were often very fine with Fields ; his friends had to hop 
nimbly to avoid insulting him. Upon occasion he took note of the 
English in other, milder ways. In London, during one of his per- 
formances, Edward VII sat in a box. Having been forewarned 
of the King's coming, Fields, with the help of the stage manager, 
expanded his act slightly. Three different times in the course of 
his routines, the tramp juggler looked up at the royal box, seemed 
to recognize an old friend in the King, and started toward him 
with hand outstretched. As the audience howled, the curtain rang 
down each time just before Fields reached the box. In later years, 
relating this incident, he would say, "I can still see the King 
smiling." As Fields was leaving the theater that evening, the 
manager, much agitated, approached him and said, "Mr. Fields, 
a gentleman outside wishes to greet you." It was Edward VII, 
accompanied by a retinue of friends. "I want to thank you and 
congratulate you on creating so much merriment at my expense," 
said the King, and, with a genial smile, he wrung Fields' hand. 
"In my opinion, that Edward was a majestic man," Fields always 
said afterward, and he meant it. 

King Edward was genuinely impressed by Fields' work and 
went to see him several times. Once, after an especially droll per- 
formance, the King invited, or commanded, him to appear at a 
garden party the following Saturday at the Palace. 

"King's having a party here at the Palace," said Fields, reading 
the note to his associates. 

"He means Buckingham Palace, you silly fellow," said a cock- 
ney acrobat, and Fields began to make his plans. He was toying 
with the idea of borrowing an imposing uniform from some 

92 



theatrical friend and renting a few decorative orders, but the 
King sent additional word by a courier that he would like Fields 
to appear in the tramp suit. 

The day arrived, and Fields appeared, deposited at the palace 
door by a highly disapproving coachman. It was a gala function, 
even by regal standards. The flower of English knighthood 
rambled over the formal gardens, sipping, munching, chattering, 
and pinching silverware in traditional style. The King greeted the 
juggler with effusion, although, Fields said later, a couple of 
nearby earls and a bishop were seen to shift their pocket watches. 
Their attitude changed, he went on, when it got about that he 
had come by invitation. The King's command, though inherently 
condescending, in the manner of royal invitations, was quite a 
compliment. To entertain the guests, Fields was to share honors 
with a French actress, a Sarah Bernhardt, who recited at length 
from UAiglon, a sad play of that period about a young French- 
man who had got in a jam and had to leave his country. 

Aside from the brilliance of the fete, the day was not altogether 
successful for Fields. By an unhappy coincidence, he had his old 
trouble with dogs. A maharajah, glittering with gems bestowed 
upon him by his worshipful but pauperized subjects, turned up 
accompanied by a pair of peevish, well-fed mastiffs. The dogs 
were plainly bored by the affair, as is frequently the case with 
foreign mastiffs at an English garden party, but they were vastly 
rewarded by Fields. While most of the guests were only amused 
by his tramp costume, the dogs took it as authentic. From the 
moment they saw, or sniffed, him, they began to draw snobbish 
class lines. Each time Fields stacked up his cigar boxes, the dogs 
rushed in to destroy him. Though he worked hard, his timing was 
bad and his morale was shaken. For several minutes, he said 
afterward, he concentrated on a trick with a loaded cane, hoping 
to catch one of the dogs on the jaw. But they were spry, for 

93 



W. C. Fields 

mastiffs, perhaps because of their colonial upbringing, and he 
never even nicked one. The King at last persuaded the mahara- 
jah to tie the dogs to a tea table, and Fields ran through a number 
of tricks with all his old skill. 

Notwithstanding his cavalier treatment of England, Fields 
liked many things about the country. He was one of the few for- 
eigners, at the time of his death, who had learned to savor English 
food. While he admitted that the vegetables often tasted as 
though they had been boiled in a strong soap, he took a fancy to 
such standard British preparations as Yorkshire pudding, roast 
beef, mutton chops, dressed fowls hanging outside poulterers' 
shops, and kidney pie. Also, he approved of the English custom 
of reading good literature. He found a noticeable difference, he 
said, in the quality of reading matter favored by Americans and 
Englishmen. Whereas most Americans, in his opinion, were con- 
tent with best sellers and the stories in popular magazines, even 
relatively uneducated Englishmen stuck pretty close to material of 
classic dimensions. Patriotically determined to raise his own 
cultural level, at least, to that of the English, Fields bought a huge 
trunk and transported it in a hansom to a secondhand bookstore. 

"Serve you?" asked the proprietor with politely concealed 
astonishment when Fields and the driver staggered in under their 
burden. 

"Fill her up," said Fields, pointing to the trunk. 

"Anything particular the gentleman desires?" asked the pro- 
prietor (according to Fields). "Books? Nice bunch old maga- 
zines? Some wadding, or tow?" 

"Books," said Fields. "Fill the trunk with books." 

"Gentleman favor any particular color? A nice red looks un- 
commonly well in a trunk. Ferdl" — here he raised one hand and 
snapped his fingers at a scrawny youth in the rear — "bring up the 
Bidwell folio! Man was recently took up on suspicion of scut- 

94 



tling," he went on. "A Folger E. Bidwell, in the shipping line, 
and they consolidated certain of his effects. Now here's books!" 
he said with pride as the boy wheeled up with a cartful of wreck- 
age. "Here's volumes as will set well in a trunk — record of in- 
coming and outgoing vessels, together with tonnage, since 1832 
— twelve volumes in a nice mock-leather binding and hardly a 
hole punched out. Knock the offering down at two pound ten." 

"There seems to be some misapprehension," said Fields. "I 
want the best books you've got, the finest authors in English 
literature." 

After some skirmishing about the price, Fields filled the trunk 
and repaired to his hotel room. For months following he dug into 
the volumes, reading, studying, memorizing. Many of them he 
had met before, when he began his self-imposed education in 
America, but now he broadened his scope, digesting and enjoying 
writers whose output, earlier, had seemed prohibitively erudite. 
Among the authors represented in his new collection were Shake- 
speare, Sir Thomas More, Bacon, and Chaucer; and Virgil, 
Homer, Milton and De Maupassant in translation. At the same 
time he acquired additional works of Dickens that, to date, he 
had overlooked. From the moment of their first acquaintance, 
Fields had felt an especial affinity for Dickens, in some of whose 
characters he saw strong traces of himself. Another thing mili- 
tating in Dickens' behalf, for Fields, was the frequent appearance, 
on the same bill as himself, of a performer named Owen McGive- 
ney, a popular vaudeville artist of the time, who specialized in 
Dickens impersonations. McGiveney had a real feeling for 
Dickens, and Fields always went out front to watch him after his 
own act was finished. 

"Gentlemen," Mr. McGiveney, as Micawber, would cry from 
the stage, "you are friends in need and friends indeed. Allow me 
to offer my inquiries with reference to the physical welfare of Mrs. 

95 



W. C. Fields 

Copperfield in esse, and Mrs. Traddles in posse — presuming, that 
is to say, that my friend Traddles is not yet united to the object 
of his affections, for weal and for woe." 

And Fields would listen and muse, perhaps divining the day, 
some thirty years forward, when he himself was to utter the de- 
lightful, stilted phrases, while Dickens, in whatever corner of 
heaven is reserved for genius, must surely have applauded. 

Like several of Mr. Dickens' cockneys, Fields enjoyed drop- 
ping into a pub after working hours. A gradual transition was 
taking place in his drinking habits. Heretofore, he had occasionally 
permitted himself a few rounds when in a carnival mood; now, 
he was beginning to find that a quiet drink or two settled his 
nerves. The agonizing strain of deadly, sustained precision was 
driving tiny cracks in his spectacular constitution. In his early 
twenties Fields was reaping the first destructive rewards of his lust 
for fame. Days and nights, year on year, of bringing his will to 
bear on the fantastic demands of his craft were exacting the toll 
that is always levied upon ambition. He was winning his fight 
for perfection, but he was losing something along the way. "After 
a tough performance I'd have trouble settling down," he said of 
this phase. "I was on edge, overstimulated. Often I'd be able to 
read, or walk it off, but sometimes it took a few beers to calm me 
down." It seemed, at the time, a harmless system. "Happiness 
means quiet nerves," he was to tell his household years later in 
Hollywood. But by then he knew that he would never have it. 



96 



CHAPTER ELEVEN 



O 



ne of Fields' cardinal rules for success was to 
disregard advice. He had established early that jugglers can out- 
juggle non-jugglers. He generalized this curious view and clung 
to it, with one or two lapses, throughout his life. It was his belief, 
for example, that university economists are not necessarily states- 
men, that writers can out-write editors, and that most critics, to 
be taken seriously, should be able to create as well as criticize. 
He had become aware, when very young, that for every artist 
there are several hundred persons with a profounder, and louder, 
understanding of his artistry than any mere artist could possibly 
have. He had read of the keen critical rejection of failures such 
as Wagner's operas, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Walt Whit- 
man's poems, and Christ's Sermon on the Mount, and he was 
sensibly impressed. Late in life Fields divided critics broadly into 
two groups : those who were ignorant but pretentious and thrust- 
ful, in the interest of making a living, and those whose pronounce- 
ments were distorted by prejudice or jealousy, such as Nicholas 
Rubinstein, whose blistering report on Tschaikovsky's piano con- 
certo, though he himself was a perceptive musician, damned the 
work as "worthless, impossible to play, clumsy, awkward, poorly 
composed, and shot through with obvious and shocking thefts." 

97 



W. C. Fields 

Rubinstein, a critic suffering from jealousy, would no doubt have 
been horribly chagrined to know that the concerto was later to 
be recognized by a famous band leader named Freddie Martin, 
bolstered up by a lyric dealing with Love, and sung in some of the 
best dance halls in the world. 

One of Fields' most notable lapses regarding critics took place 
in England. The man who engineered the incident, a contributor 
to a London newspaper, was kind to Fields but suggested what 
a pity it was that Hazlitt, who had written learnedly about Indian 
jugglers, had not lived to see the American visitor. By some 
chance, Fields happened to read the criticism, and in spite of him- 
self he started to worry. The word "learned" stuck in his mind. 
Was there more to juggling than he thought? Was he exploiting 
his gift to the full? Would Hazlitt have approved? Very much 
worried, he went to a library, unearthed Hazlitt's works, and read 
the piece on juggling. It was, he acknowledged, a revelation; Haz- 
litt clearly explained that juggling was a matter of precision, 
mathematics, co-ordination, muscle control, breathing, relaxed 
nerves, and several other imposing things, some of them in Latin. 
When Fields went away, his head was spinning. He only hoped 
that he could remember the ingredients of successful juggling 
long enough to put them into practice. 

The following day at the theater he took up his usual stance, 
but his thoughts were on Hazlitt. He tossed several balls and hats 
into the air and concentrated heavily on precision, mathematics, 
co-ordination, muscle control, breathing, relaxed nerves and the 
things in Latin. All about him balls and hats tumbled to the floor. 
He picked them up and heaved them aloft again, chanting the 
learned phrases. On this try he almost caught one hat, but it 
clipped through his fingers just as he got to "co-ordination." All 
in all, it was a trying evening for Fields, but it was worse for his 

98 



audience. The awful shade of Hazlitt hung black over the hall. 
Fields kicked his cigar boxes, tripped over his cane, dropped a bil- 
liard ball on his foot, and probed the air for hats. Day after day 
he battled Hazlitt, juggling like a man with arthritis. At one point 
he decided he was through. But in due course his natural feeling 
about critics returned, and he resumed his work without as- 
sistance. "I was almost put out of business by a well-meaning 
corpse," he remarked later. 

The experience taught Fields a lesson. It reinforced his disin- 
clination to accept counsel; thereafter he was rarely known to 
listen to anybody about anything. Not long after the tussle with 
Hazlitt, he appeared in Edinburgh and became ill there. He ran 
a temperature, lost weight, and looked unnaturally rosy in the 
cheeks. An Edinburgh specialist, summoned by the music-hall 
manager, visited the sick man and took soundings. His examina- 
tion required two or three visits and involved a number of tests 
which struck the patient as excessively annoying. Fields took a 
notion, which was not entirely foreign to him in other cases, that 
the doctor was trying to badger him for some mysterious reason of 
his own. This notion was, he felt, more than justified when the 
specialist presented a bill for four guineas and handed down his 
diagnosis. "You're a very sick man," he said to Fields, who was 
regarding the bill with a look of stupefied incredulity. "You'll 
have to be hospitalized for a long period and kept on a careful 
diet. If not, you won't live six months." As soon as the doctor left 
to make arrangements, Fields dressed, went out and bought a 
bottle of whisky, then returned to his room and had a very decent 
time for an hour or two, after which he boarded a boat for Paris. 

Twenty years later, when he was appearing in the stage play 
Poppy, he felt a little down again, and the management, as in 
Edinburgh, called a physician. 

99 



W. C. Fields 

"We'll have to take you to a hospital for some tests," the 
physician said to Fields, who was in his dressing room surrounded 
by worried members of the company. 

"The hell with it," cried Fields, nervously remembering the 
four guineas. "Take them in here." 

"But we have equipment at the hospital," insisted the doctor, 
as he removed a glass of medicinal rye from the patient's 
fingers. 

"Then bring it over," said Fields. "I'm not leaving the room." 

Instead of taking X rays, as he wished to do, the physician and 
several assistants from a piano factory brought in a fluoroscope 
and stripped the patient to his waist. It was a pretty scene, one 
which might have tried the humanity of Hippocrates. Fields, 
wearing a straw hat and standing more or less behind the fluoro- 
scope, carried on a high, senseless monologue about the benefits 
of disease and the perfidy of doctors, while the company giggled 
and the physician and the manager pleaded for co-operation. 

"Can you stand over a little to your left, Mr. Fields?" the 
physician would say. "We've only got the end of one collarbone 
in the picture." 

" — down there in the New He-brides group," said Fields, re- 
suming an anecdote he'd started a minute before, "and came 
down with a painful rash in the region of my latissimus 
dorsi " 

"To the left, Bill," said the manager. "That's your right — 
you're out of the picture entirely now." 

"Had this rash in the region of my latissimus dorsi/' said 
Fields to the company, "and they called in a native witch 
doctor " 

"Could the patient stop thrashing his arms?" called out the 
doctor in a querulous voice. "It seems to give a shimmying 
eff " 

ioo 



"Beg your pardon," said Fields. "Well, this witch doctor made 
up a brew out of bats' feet and missionaries' teeth and listened to 
my heart with a conch shell. Then he " 

"Come on, Bill," said the manager. "You can have a drink 
later. The doctor's trying to look at your chest." 

"Gould the patient get behind the fluoroscope again?" asked 
the physician. 

"Upshot of it was," continued Fields, "that the witch doctor 
turned to me and said, 'I'm sorry, but you've contracted beri- 
beri, botts, and that dreaded of all diseases — mogo on the gogogo.' 
He handed me a bill for thirty-two beads and three yards of 
yellow ribbon." 

After some time the physician actually made an examination. 
Then he said, "Mr. Fields, have you ever had tuberculosis?" 

"Naw," said Fields, employing his favorite rejoinder. 

"My examination shows that about twenty years ago you had a 
very clearly defined case," the physician went on. "The extensive 
scar tissue proves it beyond a doubt. You're having a mild re- 
currence." 

"Well, I guess it was that incident in Edinburgh," said Fields 
at length. "But it healed right up. Tuberculosis is nothing to 
worry about. Alongside of mogo on the gogogo it " 

Nonplused, the physician signaled to the piano movers, who 
picked up the fluoroscope and they all left. Fields put his shirt 
back on, and Poppy proceeded as advertised. He felt all right 
again in a few days. There can be no doubt that the exposure 
and privations of his childhood had made him easy prey to 
tuberculosis, but after the setback during Poppy he never had any 
further trouble with the disease. Later in life Fields had various 
explanations for his singular recovery, most of them centering on 
whisky, a tuberculosis specific that probably would not withstand 
medical scrutiny. People who knew him best believe that he 

IOI 



W. C. Fields 

defeated the disease through the exercise of his extraordinary 
will power. Fields often overcame illness by ignoring it. Like a 
horse, he considered himself well if he was on his feet. 

The European tour was good for Fields; he added self-con- 
fidence to an already abundant supply of that quality, he acquired 
culture in sizable doses, and he saved money, secreting it in such 
banks as looked trustworthy. On this first foreign tour he averaged 
$150 a week. His expenses were small; in most countries, the 
exchange was favorable to Americans, and living was, besides, 
relatively very cheap. A situation of this kind was attractive to 
Fields, who believed in taking advantage of whatever windfalls 
the Lord provided. When he returned to America, flushed with 
enthusiasm, he promptly took steps to book another tour. He 
laid out a plan whereby he would share himself in equitable parts 
with the nations of the world. As the Pittsburgh Gazette reported 
his program, not long after the turn of the century, "He makes it 
a condition of all his contracts that he shall play one season in 
America and two seasons abroad consecutively. Hence he is per- 
haps the most extensive traveler on the stage." 

Fields was, in fact, becoming a great international favorite. 
People who saw his act remembered it in detail years later. Not- 
withstanding his heartwarming natural receptions, he devised a 
simple scheme, in this period, to assure himself of ovations. When 
he entered a new town, he would send out a messenger to round 
up some boys. These he would employ, at moderate prices, to 
form a Fields claque. Other performers were often astonished, 
on a night that found the public generally limp, when the ap- 
pearance of Fields evoked hosannas. The boys pitched in with 
such vim that it caught on around the house; people who, for 
one reason or another on certain occasions, felt disinclined to 
applaud anything, set up a thunderous roar for Fields, and 

102 



managers duly took note. The latter action was largely super- 
fluous, since Fields, after a hearty claque, usually looked in on 
the manager to describe the racket and ask for a raise. Once, 
headlining a bill at the Tivoli, that pleasant outdoor playground 
in Copenhagen, he organized his paid disciples and remained in 
his dressing room, after the show, to square up. One of the group, 
a curly-headed youngster in the throes of honest hero worship, 
refused the money and asked for a photograph instead. Fields, 
much pleased, gave him one, signing it with a grand flourish. 
Many years later, in California, he became acquainted with a 
Danish actor named Carl Brisson, who occupied a dressing room 
next to his on the Paramount lot. Fields invited him to dinner, 
and during the relaxation after dinner, Brisson offered to enter- 
tain. He stood up and imitated several of the juggling tricks, with 
familiar gestures, that Fields had featured in the days of his old 
European tours. Then Brisson produced the signed photograph 
Fields had given him at the Tivoli. Fields was touched and flus- 
tered. 

Twice at the Folies-Bergere, in Paris, Fields had top billing. 
Charles Chaplin, a young Englishman just getting started in show 
business, was on the program both times but in a subordinate 
capacity. Chaplin's contribution at these shows consisted princi- 
pally of sitting in a box, like an ordinary patron, and shooting 
putty wads at the actors, a form of intramural entertainment 
with which Fields was not wholly in sympathy. Several of Fields' 
friends believe that he saw the stirrings of greatness in Chaplin 
very early, and grew hostile accordingly. "I hope Chaplin's pic- 
ture [Monsieur Verdoux] is as bad as everybody says it is," he was 
to write one of them not long before his death. Fields never saw 
the film and so was happily unaware of the many fine moments it 
contained for Chaplin followers. Also on his bill at the Folies- 
Bergere was a young song-and-dance man named Maurice 

10$ 



W. C. Fields 

Chevalier, who was then appearing anonymously and rather 
contentedly in the chorus. 

During his second foreign haul, Fields went from London to 
South Africa, which at that time was unsettled by the civil strife 
known as the Boer War. He was in Johannesburg when the 
trouble reached there, starting with a series of strikes. To a Lon- 
don friend he wrote, "The town is under martial law and we all 
must be in bed by eight o'clock each evening. The music halls 
are closed and two companies are lying idle. There is an epidemic 
of jugglers here. The outbreak includes Valazzi, Frank Le Dent, 
Silvo, Selma Braatz and myself ! I have suggested an all-juggling 
bill. The place is full of grim-looking Boers with double-barreled 
guns and thickly bearded faces. They pass the lonely hours wait- 
ing for trouble by vying with each other to look the dirtiest. 

"It is now eight o'clock and the quiet is absolutely appalling. 
Not a soul on the streets except soldiers and policemen with guns 
slung over their shoulders. They stand about in groups and remain 
perfectly silent. The railway was guarded by burghers all the way 
from Cape Town. I am beginning to like Jo'burg, though, and am 
glad I did not commit felo-de-se on the boat coming out. I enclose 
you a Post-impressionistic sketch of me by a local artist. I didn't 
know whether to sue for libel or get him deported." 

In a Cape Town saloon Fields met a young American cowhand, 
Will Rogers, who had shipped there with a herd of range ponies, 
hoping to sell them to the Boers. He showed Fields a lot of fancy 
rope tricks and said he wouldn't mind getting into show business 
himself, when he got rid of his stock. Later, in Durban, Fields 
again ran across Rogers, who by then had joined a small circus. 
In the years to come, their paths were to cross many times; they 
were to co-star in the Follies and appear together on many other 
bills. Rogers always had the greatest reverence for Fields, and 
Fields reciprocated the feeling, with his usual periodic reserva- 

104 



tions and suspicions. For a while, he felt, for example, that Rogers' 
fame was becoming unwieldy and bothersome. Despite occasional 
snubs, Rogers continued throughout his life to think that Fields 
was the funniest man in history. Once, when Fields was ill at Las 
Encinas Sanitarium in Pasadena, Rogers went out to visit him, 
taking various goodies that he believed might be on the proscribed 
list. At the gate he was informed that Fields was too ill to receive 
callers. Rogers nodded politely, drifted down the wall a couple of 
hundred yards, climbed a sapling and dropped over, then pushed 
forward from bush to bush, as if stalking wild ponies, to Fields' 
room. They had a rousing reunion, while Fields' nurse, a girl in 
her teens, gave awestruck co-operation. 

When Rogers had gone, the nurse assisted Fields to his couch 
and said mistily, "Isn't he a wonderful man? I just love that 
voice!" 

"The son of a bitch is a fake," said Fields. "I'll bet a hundred 
dollars he talks just like anybody else when he gets home." 

Fields met another American cowboy, Tom Mix, in South 
Africa during the Boer War. When Fields asked Mix what 
brought him down, he said carelessly, "Oh, I thought I'd get me 
in on this fuss." 

Fields was impressed by what struck him as dangerous non- 
chalance. 

"Is that so?" he asked. "Which side are you on?" 

"Either side," said Mix. "I haven't had a chance to check up 
on what they're righting about. It's all one to me, anyhow." 

Fields never forgot Mix's offhand view of life. He took a strong 
proprietary interest in the cowhand's later film career, frequently 
telling about the South African meeting and saying that, so help 
him, there was one movie Westerner who was a hundred per cent 
genuine. 



™5 



CHAPTER TWELVE 



O 



ne day, Fields was visited at his hotel in Berlin 
by an American friend who, when he got in the room, began to 
skip around in a very trying manner. He looked under the chairs, 
behind the bed, and in the closet. Fields demanded an explana- 
tion, alert, as always, for trouble. 

"Shhh!" whispered the friend. "There's a man in this room." 

Automatically, Fields muttered, "The house dick!" and started 
to frame a denial of everything. 

"My dear fellow," said the visitor, breaking off the joke. "It's 
you — you're twenty-one. This is your birthday!" 

Fields sometimes gave out his birth date to the press (though 
generally lying about it, for no apparent reason except perhaps 
to keep his hand in) , but he had small taste for birthdays himself. 
He seldom remembered when the fateful day rolled around. More 
often than not, he was in some place, at the time, where he knew 
nobody well and where a celebration would have had limited 
appeal. 

On his tours and in this country, though he often saw friends 
(who were largely theatrical connections) , he had wretched sieges 
of loneliness, when he aimlessly wandered the streets, sat reading 
in his room, or sequestered his thoughts in some quiet, uninquisi- 

1 06 



tive bar. Realizing the solitary incompleteness of his life, he tried 
to develop hobbies. For a while he devoted himself to sketching — 
an artistic urge that seems to find lodgings in a good many actors. 
John Barrymore began his career as a cartoonist, his brother 
Lionel is a painter of exceptional diligence. Numerous toilers in 
the Hollywood vineyard now range their crisp, dried hills with 
brush and easel. Starting with a pencil and a notebook, Fields 
sought the elusive line. He sat in parks and studied the genus 
homo. His findings were unflattering. The species emerged as 
grotesque, its faces clownish, its figures warped. As his talent 
sharpened, he moved to pen and proceeded to crayon, slandering 
his fellows in bold, black lines. At length, in an impartial humor, 
he turned viciously on himself. The stockpiles of artists are rich 
in self-portraits. With any creative person, the present indicative 
is important, with the actor-artist it sometimes reaches an obses- 
sion. Van Gogh captured the saffron spirit of Aries, but he was 
equally content with the spirit of Van Gogh, frayed ear and all. 
Fields reproduced himself in caricature many, many times, and 
several of the works survive. They are deft and humorous, with a 
real feeling for disparagement. The line is sharp, arresting, strong 
with animation. 

Mainly, he drew himself in tramp costume. To an adroit re- 
porter he finally acknowledged his new enterprise, and gave over 
a sketch of himself for publication. Thereafter, many papers 
printed Fields' caricatures of himself, in connection with inter- 
views. Commenting on Fields' life in this period, the Cleveland 
Plain Dealer, for example, said, "How a man of the routine im- 
posed upon W. C. Fields at the Hippodrome makes to be lonely 
when his activities in the theater take up most of the afternoons 
and evenings is surprising. Nevertheless, Fields confesses that he 
is one of the loneliest of men. When good books are not available, 
Fields makes time merrily pass by drawing sketches. Strolling 

107 



W. C. Fields 

along the streets and through the parks, he draws all and sundry. 
And his talent at this endeavor is almost up to his juggling, and 
that is saying quite a deal!" The confidential nature of this dis- 
patch is astonishing, when it is considered that Fields seldom 
revealed his true status, of whatever kind, to any reporter. In no 
other known interview of the time does he mention being lonely. 
On the contrary, he often described his offstage commitments 
as being somewhat more social than those of the Astors. The 
Plain Dealer's report must stand, in the light of what Fields later 
told a few close friends, as a fine tribute to an enterprising, 
anonymous and long-forgotten reporter. 

Most vaudeville old-timers remember Fields as a solitary man. 
Marty Lynch, a juggler of that period who is still practicing his 
art, recently wrote in a letter to a friend : "No one ever knew him 
[Fields] . I was playing in London a long time, and so was Fields, 
at different theaters, and all the performers used to gather after 
their shows at the German Club, on Lisle Street, in back of the 
Hippodrome. Fields would be there, too, but all alone always, 
sitting at a table reading and drinking, all alone. 

"I would ask different actors if they knew him. Well, I met a 
few that played on 'bills' with him, but hardly anybody knew 
him, to speak to." 

Fields' loneliness presumably reached such a pitch that, soon 
after the turn of the century, he contracted an alliance that will 
probably remain the cloudiest aspect of his history. He took a 
bride, a Miss Harriet Hughes, of 423 West Twenty-fifth Street, 
New York City. The liaison marked the beginning of a wrangle 
that continued until Fields' death. In fact, it is still in lively 
progress, in California, where the widow is continuing the fuss 
with the late comedian's shade, trying, contrary to his wishes as 
expressly stated in his will, to gain control of his fortune. Fields 
and Miss Hughes met while she was dancing in a New York 

108 



musical show. Fields had been engaged to do a specialty act 
during the show's New York run. She was a pretty girl, with a 
striking figure, and Fields at the time was both handsome and 
glamorous, if the tramp costume can be discounted. Miss Hughes' 
father was a respectable, hard-working wholesale grocer (Fields 
once remarked later that for a good portion of his life he seemed 
to have been pursued by vegetables) and her mother, a former 
resident of New Orleans, was a French Creole. 

Fields himself was always vague on the subject of his wedlock, 
feeling that it "dated" him. The former Miss Hughes, who now 
lives at 123^2 North Gale Drive, Beverly Hills, has never been 
very co-operative with the press. In the interest of breaking the 
will, however, she has announced through her attorney that the 
date of her marriage was "on or about the eighth day of April, 
1900," and that the place was California. Various relatives of 
the families recall a few details of the match. After the ceremony, 
the couple accompanied the show on tour. Then, back in New 
York, they lived for a while with the bride's family. As seen by 
a member of the circle, Fields was considerate of his mother-in- 
law and treated her with kindness. At meals, for example, he often 
tried to brisken up the gathering with little mannerisms he had 
developed during his professional life. Of these, Mrs. Hughes 
perhaps cared least for his habit of dining with a beer bottle bal- 
anced on top of his head. 

As one result of the marriage, Fields became reconciled with his 
own family. After an absence of more than a decade, he returned 
to the Germantown hearth. On this visit he took his wife and her 
sister Kitty, who had been a well-known child actress and was 
still appearing in Broadway plays. Kitty Hughes is now married 
to a Japanese-American, George Kurimoto, and lives in Jackson 
Heights. At first, back home, Fields was nervous, lest his father 
might remember the box and take further steps with the shovel. 

iog 



W. C. Fields 

But the quarrel was forgotten ; the mood was genial. Fields' broth- 
ers and sisters, like their parents, were eager for details of his 
career, and he expounded it by the hour, dwelling on his en- 
trances into all the big American cities, to ticker tape and mass 
cheering, and the strong comradeship that had sprung up be- 
tween him and European royalty. The implication was strong in 
his reports that he had the run of Buckingham Palace, and he 
was heard to remark that some of the bedrooms were "drafty." 
He spoke affectionately of the King, whom he referred to as "Ed," 
or "Eddie," and recalled with pleasure their nocturnal ramblings 
about the London cabarets. Needless to say, his family was spell- 
bound; Dukinfield in particular seemed almost unhinged with 
astonishment. He went into a mild shock from which he never 
really recovered. 

Fields found that Philadelphia revisited was a sunnier place. 
He retraced the rocky trail of his fugitive youth. The old bunk, 
where he had lain in muddy anguish, was tumbled in, its walls 
eroded, its bottom weedy. On the far end of its lot a house was 
going up. Fields passed the time of day with a workman, remark- 
ing that he had "once looked into the lot as a possible residential 
site." The workman replied, with unconscious appropriateness, 
that the neighborhood was growing up pretty fast and that it 
was always smart to get in on the ground floor. Fields agreed, 
and strolled on toward the smithy. In his later accounts to a 
friend, he seemed nostalgic about his homecoming. Just as the 
bloodiest battlefields finally become places of ineffable charm, so 
did the ugliness fade from the scenes of his youth. Trudging over 
the trail, warm and friendly in the summertime of his visit, he 
wondered how it could have seemed so hostile in the years before. 
The forge was closed; Wheeler had apparently made good on 
his threat to move to Georgia ; nobody appeared to know for sure. 
The barn was refurbished, occupied now by a newcomer, a beefy, 

I JO 



red-faced steam fitter. As to the Orlando Social Club, its quarters 
were gutted and its members were scattered. The steam fitter, who 
was sitting outside on a three-legged stool, taking the sun, men- 
tioned the burned-out quarters when Fields approached. 

"You the insurance adjuster?" he said sourly. 

"Why, no, I can't honestly say that I am," Fields replied. 

The man evidently failed to hear him, or paid no heed, for he 
went on, "Well, that second story up there, that's quite a mess, 
now, ain't it?" 

Fields, looking up and seeing the scorch marks on the outside, 
murmured sympathetically. 

"You been shinning around amongst the neighbors?" asked the 
fitter, with a keen look. 

Fields stared blankly, and he continued, "There's been some 
talk that I fired it. I may be dumb, but I got ears." 

Fields was about to congratulate him on a clever ruse when the 
man said, "They lie, that's how! There's slander laws, and so 
they'll find. I wasn't nowhere near. I was out on a boiler job — 
man blowed a sleeve valve and scalded two stokers two mile north 
of Cheaptown. So that's that, and you can investigate all you 
please, and be damned to you!" 

Fields had been on the point of asking to see his old apartment, 
but in view of the steam fitter's vehemence he changed his mind 
and made off down the road, at a fairly brisk rate. Later on, he 
said the incident had cheered him up. "I finally felt at home," he 
explained. 

He visited the stable where he had reaped the golden harvest of 
the benefit. The place had changed hands and nobody knew 
where the former owner had gone. The new man, a lugubrious 
beanpole, was apathetic toward Fields' reminiscence about the 
benefit, interrupting continually with complaints that a client 
named Hoskins had "lathered up" the establishment's best mare. 



/// 



W. C. Fields 

"It isn't as though he'd selected Pondicherry Nell," he said. "Oh, 
no ! She's already wind broke. Nothing but the best, he says, and 
points out Sadie. Tell you what," he added ferociously, lowering 
his nose to a point an inch or so from Fields', an unfortunate 
juxtaposition that placed him at a lively disadvantage, "I think 
he's putting her to commercial use. If I find out he's been drawing 

and hauling I'll " 

Fields left before learning the nature of the revenge likely to 
be visited upon Hoskins. It was good, he reflected, to get back to 
the earth, to shake off, for a while, the problems of artificiality 
and reacquaint himself with the burdens of his audience. And 
always, as he proceeded, he studied the foibles of the race, taking 
mental notes, storing up for the future. He passed the house whose 
basement he had occupied on the nights when the first glacial 
blasts of winter had proved the inadequacy of the blacksmith's. 
There was a new basement window ; the prohibitive boards were 
gone, and the house had a fresh coat of paint. Fields was momen- 
tarily tempted to come back, window or no window, and spend 
the night sleeping in the woodbox. He felt the old urges; for a 
space he had the sharpest curiosity about the housewife's current 
store of preserves. But the hard-won luxury of clean sheets pre- 
vailed. He put down the rising, deodorized tide of old sensations 
and continued on his way. He was at last, he decided, almost 
civilized, and he returned to his waiting bride. 

"I remember seeing him at the old Keith's Union Square, not 
long after the marriage," a distant relative says. "Hattie was help- 
ing him out in the act. She was dressed in pretty white tights and 
she looked ravishing. As Claude — we all called him Claude — 
did his tricks, Hattie handed him the equipment, standing by and 
smiling, you know, the way they do. We went around to the stage 
door and he came out, keyed up and perspiring but very polite. 

112 



He asked us how we had liked the act and he seemed awfully 
pleased when we said it was funny." 

In the first months of the marriage the couple lived in various 
furnished apartments. Then they took a suite at the old Bartholdi 
Hotel, on Twenty-third Street across from the Flatiron Building, 
in a district then distinguished by the pre-eminince of its archi- 
tecture but today humbled by the loftier eyesores uptown. Though 
there is generous support for the belief that Fields was later a diffi- 
cult husband, he was at first docile, and stuck close to home. His 
evenings were devoted mainly to study, a member of the family 
recalls. He had a prolonged session of rereading his favorite 
authors — Dickens, Swift, Mark Twain. 

So domestic had Fields become, after his season of wooing, that 
he invited his family to accompany him and Mrs. Fields on a 
professional trip to Europe. His brother Walter accepted, and 
the three sailed together on a sunny morning in May. Fields was, 
as stated, domestic, but his firmly rooted caution about money 
had not altogether disappeared. It developed that he and the 
bride were to travel first-class and Walter was to join the medi- 
ocrities in second. During the voyage Mrs. Fields expressed con- 
cern over her brother-in-law's welfare; she persuaded her hus- 
band to investigate. Her worry was commendable but baseless. 
"Walter Fields was as good-looking a young man as any matinee 
idol, what they called in those days 'a regular Gibson type,' " says 
a female friend who knew him then. "He was tall and well-made 
and very blond, like most of the Dukinfields. Women used to pause 
and stare whenever he passed." Fields and his wife picked their 
way into second class for the investigation and found Walter hob- 
nobbing with a countess, the ship's only celebrity of the first 
magnitude. He nodded democratically but made no gesture 
about an introduction. Later on, it came out that the countess had 
spotted him from A deck with a pair of binoculars she carried for 
the purpose and had sought him out promptly. 

113 



W. C. Fields 

Walter's position en the tour was not wholly that of guest. He 
also functioned as his brother's secretary. The work was not 
heavy, though Fields found many little tasks, annoying in the 
aggregate, to delegate from time to time. Once, in Fields' dressing 
room, when Mrs. Fields found a gayly scented letter on his table 
and demanded an explanation, he backed Walter into a corner, 
pressed a twenty-dollar bill into his hand, and cried in angry 
tones, "How many times have I told you to stop using my name?" 
The explanation, Fields said, was actually quite simple, though 
he somehow didn't feel up to relating it at the time — a young 
lady sitting in a box had merely sent him a warmly affectionate 
fan letter. 

It was inevitable that marriage for Fields should fail. His years 
of fighting life on his own terms had diminished his adaptability. 
Even if he had married a girl with the patience of a saint, he 
would have been chafed by the double harness. There was, be- 
tween him and Mrs. Fields, a difference in religious conviction. 
The bride was a responsive Catholic, given to sturdy, dawn expe- 
ditions of worship. Fields' religion was less formal, less capable of 
definition. In general, he felt that the average minister should be 
unfrocked immediately and prevented, by force if necessary, from 
communicating any ideas to persons under thirty-five. He consid- 
ered, further, that Methodists especially, having, as he had been 
told, a theological bias against nicotine, needed the most vigilant 
kind of watching. In the light of maturer statements from Fields, 
one gathers that he had a sort of religion of his own but that it 
was disassociated from the church. Never in his lifetime did he 
establish a rapport between himself and any of the Lord's agents 
on earth; his divinity was practiced wholly within the temple 
of his mind. 

The little things that disrupt marriage became much in evi- 

114 



dence during the few years that he and his wife lived together. 
The greatest sympathy may be felt for a woman whose choicest 
bric-a-brac was frequently describing a course between her hus- 
band's fingers and the ceiling. On days when Fields' timing was 
bad, she suffered acute and understandable shocks. With a figu- 
rine of the Virgin crashing here and a painted shell from Atlantic 
City dissolving there, she found it hard to read, or attend to her 
sewing. 

On a second trip to Europe, Mr. and Mrs. Fields took Mr. 
Dukinfield along. The father had a nostalgic urge, as he put it, 
; 'to take another look at old Ben afore I die." His wife stayed 
home to mind the family, aided by a generous subsidy from her 
eldest son. Dukinfield's wish was gratified; shortly after they 
arrived in London, Fields put him on an omnibus that ran right 
by the big clock. On this tour Mrs. Fields notified her husband 
that she was expecting a child, and sometime before its arrival 
was due, she and Dukinfield returned home. She had remembered, 
perhaps, that an American boy born outside the country's limits 
is disqualified from becoming President. Her child was, as she had 
anticipated, a male ; he is at present an attorney, practicing in Los 
Angeles and living in Beverly Hills ; an upright, mildly corpulent 
man in his early forties, astonishingly similar, physically, to his 
father, with the familiar resonance of voice, and rigorously de- 
voted to his mother, of whom he sees a good deal. "The two have 
always felt," says an acquaintance, "that they have been a very 
great comfort to each other during the long, hard years when 
Mr. Fields was receiving his vulgar publicity." 

The boy was named W. G. Fields, Jr., a fact that he has never 
presumed on; he goes, as anonymously as possible, by the name 
of "Claude," which both he and his mother like. Mr. and Mrs. 
Fields separated a few years after Claude was born. The critical 
reasons for their disharmony will remain, appropriately enough, 

1 '5 



W. C. Fields 

Mrs. Fields' secret, since he never discussed the marriage, but his 
friends believe that the separation had a salutary effect on both 
of them. From the moment of his departure, Fields began to send 
his wife a weekly check, starting with twenty-five dollars and 
working up to around sixty dollars toward the end. Sometimes, 
when the fit was on him, he reduced the amount, occasionally 
with an explanation (which usually centered on "hard times") 
but more often without. Mrs. Fields took her son to Brooklyn, 
where they lived for a while ; then they moved to a flat at Ninety- 
fourth and Amsterdam in Manhattan, and after that to Academy 
Street, where Claude grew up. He attended public schools, Evan- 
der High School, and finally Columbia University. At the latter 
place he showed his mettle — working his way through by playing 
the saxophone, stolidly refusing support from his illustrious father. 
Mrs. Fields, an energetic and thoughtful mother, had insisted that 
Claude, v/hen quite young, take piano lessons, and it developed 
that the boy had considerable talent. In his high school phase, 
however, he succumbed to the syrupy bleats of the saxophone, 
which was then at the crest of its vogue. Gaining a decision over 
the saxophone, he organized his own band at Columbia. Claude 
had a successful undergraduate career. At its conclusion he 
ditched the horn and took up law. In Beverly Hills, he is regarded 
as a dedicated church worker. 



Back on his own, Fields returned to Europe, again with his 
brother Walter. He expanded his itinerary, penetrating deeper 
into the Continent, exploring new areas of juggling appreciation. 
Of these, Spain was perhaps the most fruitful. In an interview 
a few years later, Fields remarked to an American reporter that if 

116 



lie had to choose another nationality he would make it Spanish. 
"They have a fanatical reverence for masters of legerdemain," he 
said, according to the writer, "and cherish Agoust, Severus and 
Cinquevalli almost as much as they are supposed to like El Greco." 
This statement was charitable of Fields, considering his first re- 
ception in Madrid. The manager of the theater had billed him 
after Fields' usual taste in those matters — that is, as "the greatest 
juggler," "greatest comedian," and several other superlatives, on 
earth. However, feeling was still pretty high as a result of the 
Spanish-American War, and the manager received word that an 
American juggler would be warmly greeted, perhaps with things 
like old tamales, garlic and Spanish mackerel. His communi- 
cant added that Fields would not need a round-trip railroad 
ticket, as the audience would almost certainly ride him out of 
town on a rail, in accordance with American custom. The man- 
ager got in touch with Fields and altered him, without immigra- 
tion folderol, into an Englishman. When Fields, sensing an easy 
social improvement, suggested a title, the manager responded with 
native Spanish courtesy, and Fields appeared as "Sir Guthbert E. 
Frothingham, S.B.," the name being the juggler's own creation, 
together with the initials. 

Mack Sennett, for whom Fields was to work some years later in 
Hollywood, tells of a Fields engagement around this period in 
Hamburg. Before arriving in Germany, Fields said, he had devel- 
oped an act in which he juggled six balls, a master feat in the 
juggling business. He was filled with confidence and, at the 
theater — the old Hippodrome — decided to stand in the wings 
and watch a few other acts, something he seldom did. His com- 
fortable reverie was interrupted by the act that preceded his. It 
turned out to be a dwarf who juggled fourteen balls while riding 
a horse. Fields was outraged; he forsook his pallid six-ball rou- 
tine and substituted one that featured hats. But he was so angry 

"7 



W. C. Fields 

he kept dropping the hats; he couldn't seem to get under them. 
He was unused to German audiences at this time and had no 
idea how things were going, but he fancied that they could 
scarcely be worse. At last, with another hat down, he stepped for- 
ward in a perfect rage and kicked it far out over the footlights. 
The spectators were charmed. They had been interested in but 
unstimulated by the dwarf's presentation. A knack for detail — 
grinding lenses, organizing drills, devising booby traps — was com- 
monplace in German life, and they yearned for something new. 
"Ya, iss gute," "Oh, fonny!" and "Ha, ha, ein mann vill kicken 
der hat!" were among the pleased cries that floated up to Fields, 
and forever afterward, when playing in Germany, he made a big 
point of kicking hats (provided by the management) all over the 
house. 



118 



CHAPTER THIRTEEN 



I 



n the years between his marriage and the first 
World War, Fields followed the vaudeville trail. He played all the 
best houses of the day, and his salary grew. He had a singular 
financial reputation among managers, agents, and other middle 
men of the theater. It was, in essence, "No matter how smart you 
may be about money, Fields can outsmart you." He was cautious 
and patient, like a brilliant military tactitian. He never charged a 
hill without sufficient artillery support. In the matter of demand- 
ing a raise, he would wait until the house was leaning primarily 
on his act. Then, with flinty unction, he would appear in the 
manager's office. According to witnesses, the exchange (a varia- 
tion of his old approach to Fred Irwin ) always went about as fol- 
lows: 

fields: Afternoon, Sam (or George, or Ned, or Bert, or 
Homer). 

sam : Oh, hello, Bill. Glad to see you. 

fields : How things going, Sam? 

sam (guardedly) : Why, not too bad, Bill. Tough week for sets 
— had to put on three extra men. 

"9 



W. C. Fields 

fields : Runs into money, hey, Sam? 

sam : Expenses are terrible just now. Worst I can remember. 

fields : Box office steady, I hope? 

sam: That is one thing. Business hasn't fallen off any, so's I 
can notice. Maybe Tuesday night. 

fields : Might even be building up a little, you suppose, Sam? 

sam {much more guardedly) : Tell you the truth, I haven't 
seen the figures. I been so worried about expenses I haven't 
had time. 



fields {concerned) : You ought to cut down your overhead, 
Sam. My four weeks are up tomorrow. I'd better go on back 
to Keith's. 

sam : Why, no, Bill. I said we might hold you over, and we'll 
do it. I'll take the slice out of my end. 

fields {emotionally affected) : You're a square shooter, Sam. 
But you can't help hard times. I'll go on back to Keith's. 

sam {in a slight change of voice) : I've got four hardware 
conventions coming in town in July. You know how they 
feel about juggling. 

fields: Recommend Oroso the Magnificent. You seen that 
wonderful new turn of his with one Indian club? The boy's 
coming along. 

sam {almost screaming) : Boy! That son of a bitch is a hun- 
dred and fifty years old. He couldn't catch a basketball with 
two extra hands. 

fields {with the far-off look) : Oroso the Magnificent. Work- 
ing at present, I believe, through Finkleberg and O'Malley, 
2750 Broadway. 

120 



sam {calm now and quite sour) : How much, Bill? 

fields : Four-fifty straight. 

sam (deathly pale) : Four weeks and option for four hundred 
and two. 

fields : Four-fifty straight, and six. 

sam: By God! I'll 

fields (rising) : Keith's 



sam: Four-fifty straight. And let me say that for a thieving, 
low-down, infernally 

fields (leaving, with an expression of offended dismay) : 
See you, Sam. 

He shifted back and forth across the country, over to Europe, 
back again — always on the move, always in a hurry, and endlessly 
planning for the future. It was a desperate, uneasy kind of life, 
and all down the line it took its count. "I had the feeling," Fields 
once told a friend, "that although I didn't actually have anything 
right now, I was working to have something soon. I think that 
was the part that got next to me — all was going fine, but I didn't 
have anything, somehow. I was on a train rushing toward a good 
place, but I couldn't seem to get there." 

He was never satisfied; he never slept soundly. He conceived 
an urge to appear in a different kind of show, and he wangled 
a part with Mclntyre and Heath, two famous blackface comedi- 
ans of the day, in a hybrid production of Klaw and Erlanger 
called The Ham Tree. It had a sort of story line but was essen- 
tially a vaudeville show. Dramatically, it did little for Fields, since 
no sooner had he got the part than he set up a clamor to juggle. 
Mclntyre and Heath, if we may believe their friends, had never 
before encountered a performer of Fields' persuasion. Within a 

121 



W. C. Fields 

few weeks after the opening, in New York, he was virtually run- 
ning the show. Mclntyre and Heath had to dig vigorously to keep 
on the pay roll. Fields stayed with The Ham Tree for its New 
York run and on the road through the years 1906 and 1907, but 
he never gave his employers a peaceful moment. By now his stand- 
ing with the press was quite solid, and he gave out interviews 
all along the route that made pointed mention of richer offers 
elsewhere. Over his theater there hung always the sinister threat 
that he might bolt. 

An Ohio paper of October 17, 1905, said, "W. C. Fields, the 
'Sherlock Baffles' of The Ham Tree company has been offered an 
engagement at the London Hippodrome. But he won't go. There 
has been talk of starring him next year in a piece that will give 
him an opportunity to employ his juggling. The talk has not yet 
come to anything like a definite arrangement, but Fields has de- 
cided that the possibility is worth trying for. He will stay with 
The Ham Tree, meanwhile, waiting for developments." 

During the run, Fields felt it vital to impress two things upon the 
management : ( 1 ) that he was outstanding and ( 2 ) that he 
should juggle. In consequence, he was alert and voluble when he 
collared his old friends of the press. "One of the most amusing 
bits in The Ham Tree' 3 said the Pittsburgh Sun of May 1, 1907, 
"in which Mclntyre and Heath are appearing at the theater this 
week is the part of Sherlock Baffles which W. G. Fields is portray- 
ing. Since The Ham Tree has been on the road (and is now in its 
second season) he has been appearing in the role and his work 
has been one of the hits of the piece. During one portion of the 
entertainment he works in his specialty — that of juggling." 

From Fields' standpoint, a report forcibly concise and to the 
point. 

For the Chicago Herald of January 7, 1906, he consented to 
do a first-person piece that would appear under the introduction, 

122 



"Mr. Fields' clever juggling and pantomime are the best feature 
of a nondescript entertainment called The Ham Tree, current at 
the Colonial." 

In the piece itself, Fields strayed somewhat off the subject. It 
seemed to be a complaining article, with special reference to acts 
that made use of large, noisy props. In the course of his choler it 
developed that his trouble could be traced to a family of French 
acrobats who had once preceded him in Paris and killed his rou- 
tine entirely. Fields offered no solution for these acts, other than 
his implied suggestion that they be removed from the theater 
without delay. Toward the end, in a quieter vein, he went into 
a few of his own little turns. "My use of extension nippers," he 
wrote, "came from seeing them employed by the Viennese shop- 
keepers to lift articles from the window, customers declining to 
accept any but the identical goods displayed." He could probably 
have added a few lively, personal notes to the Viennese shop- 
keeper situation, had he chosen. 

The Ham Tree was a success of the period. Of the reviews that 
greeted it, that of the South Bend (Indiana) Tribune was re- 
garded by some of the cast as being the most definitive : "Perhaps 
the best vaudeville bill ever offered in South Bend was Mclntyre 
and Heath and supporting company in The Ham Tree at the 
Auditorium last evening. The Ham Tree is called 'A Musical 
Novelty, 5 but in reality it is a series of vaudeville features done up 
in a flimsy package which for want of any other name may be 
called 'A Plot.' Every once in a while the package is either for- 
gotten or it is mislaid. No matter which, the audience is enter- 
tained and the laughs come thick and fast. 

"Mclntyre and Heath are clever blackface comedians. They 
are above the average and never do they have to resort to the 
tricks and horseplay so common in the variety of comedy which 
they essay. Generally speaking, their methods are quiet and their 

123 



W. C. Fields 

efforts are genuinely funny. Sometimes they laugh at the audience 
and at other times they laugh with the audience, but whether 
they laugh with or at, the audience laughs all the time and what 
more could any entertainers ask or what more could any audience 
desire? And there you are. Whatever The Ham Tree may be, a 
musical comedy, a musical novelty, or a musical conglomeration 
of fun, frolic and occasionally a tune, M clntyre and Heath and 
their support are quite worth seeing. The plot package may be 
loosely done up and now and then thrown in a corner and for- 
gotten for the time being — but what's the use? One laughs and 
forgets, and to laugh and forget is something that one can't always 
do, unless given a lot of encouragement. Mclntyre and Heath 
furnished the encouragement. 

"The support was led by W. C. Fields as Sherlock Baffles, a 
mystery, who reminded one considerably of 'Nervy Nat,' whose 
antics grace the pages of a well-known humorous weekly. Mr. 
Fields did some clever juggling when he wasn't otherwise engaged. 
Frederick K. Bowers sang a number of songs in energetic manner 
and did his share toward assisting the stars in their fun-making. 
David Torrence did an 'Earl of Pawtucket' part and tried to 
imitate, and with some success, the mannerisms of Lawrence 
D'Orsay. Belle Gold as Desdemona, a colored maid, danced well 
and sang with enthusiasm. Had the show been labeled 'vaude- 
ville' she would have been down as 'a song-and-dance artist,' and 
such a classification would not be far from correct. The others, 
including the chorus, worked hard and pleased, both individually 
and collectively." 

Tex Rickard took Fields around the world one year. Walter went 
along, and later worked for Rickard as a kind of combination 
secretary and bodyguard. Besides his trips to Europe, Fields went 
around the world two different times, juggling, without speaking 

124 



any lines, before the most widely dissimilar audiences. One week 
he would perform for the upper-class residents of an English 
colony, and the following week he would entertain a tribe of 
naked Waziri. After his first circumnavigation of the globe, a 
Pittsburgh newspaper said, in listing his waystops, "For years he 
has been regarded as one of the cleverest jugglers in the business. 
He appeared in all the first-class vaudeville houses of this country 
and then made a tour of the world, during which he visited 
Honolulu, Samoa, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, 
Madeira, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Germany, France, 
Spain, Italy, Russia and the northern countries. In most of these 
countries he appeared before the crowned heads and he has in 
his possession many valuable keepsakes given him by nobility 
before whom he entertained in his once familiar make-up of the 
tramp." 

Though he was reticent about many phases of his early life, 
Fields later boasted continually of his travels. He liked to sit on a 
movie lot, between scenes, and narrate hair-raising experiences 
apt to shock young females of the cast. By his account, he had 
cultivated romances with women of every known pigment. He 
enjoyed dwelling in particular on points of departure from West- 
ern standards. "This belle was a Melanesian," he'd say, with a 
confiding smile at an ingenue, "and she had kinky hair that stood 
up like a briar bush. She had a wooden soup dish in her nether 
lip, her teeth were filed, and through her nose she had a brass 
ring that had come off a misisonary's hitching post. Aside from 
that, she was tattooed all over with pictures of rattlesnakes. She 
was one of the prettiest girls in those parts." 

If Fields' stories are to be accepted without dilution, he had 
children by the majority of the women, married and single, in the 
Belgian Congo and in most of the other savage areas of the planet. 
He spoke freely of legging it through the brush with tribesmen 

**5 



W. C. Fields 

in pursuit carrying spears. The implication was clear in his re- 
ports that he had evacuated each community only in time to 
escape serious damage. Fields' reminiscences were stimulating, 
but, as his friends point out, many of them were probably lies. He 
was gratified to find himself, raconteur-wise, in a situation 
wherein it was difficult to check up on him. In Fields' favor, it 
must be said that his anecdotes centered mainly on troubles rather 
than triumphs. Every place he went, painful things happened to 
him. He established the foundation, in fact, for a persecution 
complex of competitive dimensions. For example, he rarely found 
a boardinghouse, in the outlands, that was not marred by some 
lethal flaw. He stopped with one woman in Australia whose estab- 
lishment, in the early morning hours, quickened to various, odd 
jungle cries. Chilled to the bone, Fields sought out his landlady 
and found her in bed with her young son Clark and a leopard. 

"I keep a few animals," she said. "The leopard's sick." 

Fields thanked her politely, then withdrew to his chamber, 
encountering on the way, he said afterward, two water buffalo 
and a Kodiak bear. 

Three weeks later he returned to the house and found his hostess 
in a charming mood. They exchanged notes about the weather, 
and Fields said, "By the way, how's the leopard?" 

"Oh, much better," she replied with a pleased smile. "He flew 
at Clark this morning and bit him in the shoulder." 

Fields sat up overnight in the railroad station. 

One of the most distressing facets of his trips was the fact that 
he seemed to get jailed more often than is common. He had spent 
much of his childhood in jails, and the habit lingered. In excep- 
tionally relaxed moments, Fields gave out comparative notes on 
jails, criticizing the cuisine, the cots, and the turnkeys. His remarks 
about French detention were disparaging in the extreme, though 
possibly tinctured with bias, while he spoke expansively of the 

126 



lockup system in England. His enthusiasm was only moderate 
about the jails in Australia — he felt that Australians had made no 
great strides in this field because their jails' most frequent occu- 
pants, aborigines, were unused to creature comforts and, provided 
with the luxury of food and beds, might get a distorted notion of 
punishment. In the last analysis, Fields, perhaps through munici- 
pal pride, thought that Philadelphia's jails stood up with the best. 
His face would become animated as he recalled the gentility of 
his keepers, the thick bean soup, and the scrubbed burlap racks. 
"When you get right down to it, there's nothing like Philadel- 
phia," he would say, with a Rotary Club ring in his voice. 

The principal reason for his incarcerations was gallantry. Fields 
would steer a girl into an inexpensive saloon, and when some 
friendly client gave her a harmless pinch, he would swing. The 
proprietors of saloons tend to favor their steady patrons, and 
Fields came off badly in the arraignments. He was thus jailed 
in London, and bailed out shortly. A similar case in Australia 
landed him in jail. "I was defending a dame whose virtue was 
impugned," went Fields' version as reported in an American 
newspaper, "and I may have been a little hasty." He was jailed in 
Germany for throwing what he described as "an overripe bock- 
wurst" on the floor of a cafe. They locked him up in London 
for socking a bobby. "He pushed me into the gutter," said Fields, 
without further explanation. He had an inflexible feeling for fair 
play, no doubt because of the unfair drubbings he had collected 
along the route. It was impossible for him to watch a fight without 
getting into it. In Paris, a French acrobat of his acquaintance, a 
man who worked with small, quiet props, was set upon, for 
reasons unknown to Fields, by three gendarmes, an alignment 
that struck Fields as thoughtless. Without making inquiries, he 
pitched into the scrap; he knocked out two of the gendarmes 
and, with the acrobat, assisted the third over the railing of a sub- 

127 



W. C. Fields 

way entrance. The winners had scarcely time to congratulate 
themselves before police reinforcements stampeded over them 
like cattle. Fields spent a cooling-off period in jail, clanging on 
his bars with tin cups, bawling for the American ambassador, and 
building up a profane, international understanding with the acro- 
bat, whose apartment was just across the way. 

He was beset by other woes. A good many of these appeared 
to strike him at the Wintergarten, in Berlin. He had successes 
there, but not for the usual reasons. One time, when he had for- 
warded his equipment to the Wintergarten from Paris, he arrived 
to find the top of his billiard table in the theater, as per schedule, 
and the sides, according to a telegram, in a depot on the Russian 
border. It was a puzzling situation. Billiards is, or are, an exact- 
ing and even a dangerous game on a table without sides. Hastily, 
Fields engaged a carpenter, who went right to work without 
having the flimsiest idea what he was building. He and Fields 
communicated through a sort of emergency esperanto consisting 
of gutturals, signs, and marks scratched on boards. In the be- 
ginning, Fields decided, the man thought he was constructing a 
cofhn for some good-sized but flattish animal, such as a starved 
goat. Accordingly, the sides emerged from six to eight inches tall, 
which was too high for an audience to see anything of the balls. 
As the work progressed, in the rear of the man's shop, which was 
adjacent to a beer garden, Fields rushed back and forth with a 
crock. The day wore on, and the carpenter hacked and whittled. 
At one point he got the sides down to a respectable billiards size, 
but by the time they finished the work, and ten or twelve crocks 
of beer, the table bore no resemblance to anything in their previ- 
ous experience, and it was probable, as Fields remarked, that no 
self-respecting goat would have been found dead on it. 

That evening he opened at the Wintergarten. He was in a moist 
humor and, aided by the carpenter's additions, broke new 

128 



grounds in billiards. At times the orchestra members were com- 
pelled to drop their fiddles and take cover. Fields himself, as the 
act dissolved, was roaring like a bull. It was a new and fresh 
entertainment for patrons of the Wintergarten. To his astonish- 
ment, the comedian was told afterward that the routine had gone 
over wonderfully. "They iss laughing and laughing," the manager 
explained, greatly pleased. Of this incident, Fields was once 
quoted in an interview as saying that "the opening night in Berlin 
in those days usually set your bookings for the rest of the Conti- 
nent. All the agents were on hand to watch me and I can say 
honestly that they had something to watch! Practically nothing 
went right, but the net result was that the act was so much fun- 
nier all of them offered me dates." 

Another time at the Wintergarten the management had just 
installed a beautiful bank of bright lights in the ceiling. Fields 
had never felt better in his life, he said, but when he tossed up 
some balls, and looked aloft, all he could see was a kind of white, 
blinding hell. He tried it again, this time adding a couple of 
Indian clubs and some hats, with the result that a number of 
objects came down and banged him on the head. From the time 
of his birth Fields had been no man to give up easily, on large 
projects or small, and he dug in, determined to get his hands on 
the flying props or be carried off on a stretcher. Neither of these 
eventualities came to pass exactly. He got his hands on several 
items, mostly by accident, since he still couldn't see anything but 
a milky blur, and his head on several more, but he never really 
caught anything. Instead of hissing and booing, or requesting his 
removal, like a well-bred American or English audience, the 
Wintergarten patrons took the disaster in fine spirit. The native 
teutonic mind approves strong entertainment, involving fractures, 
and the spectators felt that Fields was sacrificing his skull for their 
diversion. Windy, gratified blasts greeted every ring of wood on 

129 



W. C. Fields 

bone; the act was getting over well. In the wings, Fields responded 
to the manager's congratulations with a broadside of profanity 
that, he decided late in life, he never quite came up to again. He 
said he matched its length on two or three occasions, but he never 
equaled its rich imagery or comprehensive zoological allusion. 
Once, when he was in Madrid, the Spanish treasury had re- 
cently recalled some currency issues and hard coin was the tender 
of the day. Fields juggled for two weeks, then went to get his 
money. "Where's your basket?" said the manager. Fields ex- 
pressed confusion, and the manager said, "I'm paying off in five- 
peseta pieces. No basket, no salary." With $750 due him, Fields 
rushed to the nearest grocer's and bought a durable bushel basket. 
His salary just filled it, the peseta being worth, at the time, around 
eleven cents. Fields pulled, carried, kicked, and otherwise cajoled 
the basket back to his room, where he nervously stood guard over 
it all night. The next day, at his wit's end, he removed it to a 
bank, where he opened an account, as he told a friend, under 
the name of Senor Guillermo McKinley, a half-breed from Guate- 
mala. Unless he or an agent of the late President picked it up, it 
probably rests there yet, accruing pesetas, baffling its handlers — a 
worn footprint of a long-departed clown. 



130 



CHAPTER FOURTEEN 



F 

jtlEL 



ields formed distinct impressions of audiences 
wherever he went. He made notes on localities, and provided 
himself with hints about future appearances. He believed that, in 
order, Washington, Kansas City and St. Louis were the toughest 
cities on the vaudeville run. "They are the igloos of the theatrical 
world," he told a reporter. "Even the managers in those communi- 
ties never know whether to give their patrons Sarah Bernhardt 
or trained seals." He worked hard in all three places, but his 
receptions were shifty. Sometimes when he felt that conditions 
were ripe for a collapse, Washington would greet him with loving 
zest. In St. Louis, when the carnival spirit was elsewhere high, his 
patrons looked suicidal. And in Kansas City bitter suffering was 
often written on every countenance. Over a period of years Fields 
tried to resolve these paradoxes. The indeterminate trio haunted 
his dreams. He had a nightmare, he once told his secretary, in 
which a judge's voice, organlike and funereal, reverberated 
through a hollow chamber. It said, "The prisoner is sentenced 
to face a mixed audience of St. Louisians, Washingtonians and 
Kansas Citians each night for the remainder of his life. Bailiff, 
lead him to the theater and let the punishment begin." 

As he studied the foe, Fields discarded many theories. He took 

13* 



W. C. Fields 

note of the German population in St. Louis, and recalled his 
workouts at the Wintergarten. But his receptions there, he re- 
flected, had all been gay. He pondered the bleak plains of 
Kansas, the arid habits of its people, the high voltage of its 
divinity, and he got no answer. With regard to Washington, he 
knew, somehow, that the answer was rooted deep in politics. He 
evolved, at last, a theory, simple and obvious but probably fool- 
proof. Knocked down to its essentials, it was that the people of 
Washington, accustomed to the incomparable slapstick on Capitol 
Hill, found lesser comedians a bore. In general, Fields considered 
that cities, despite the three he had trouble with, provided more 
fertile ground for stage humor than rural areas. There was an 
excellent reason for this : city people, at that time, were familiar 
with more of the world than country folk and could understand 
a wider variety of allusion. For a while, Fields encountered some 
embarrassing silences in the small towns with a routine involving 
subway straps. Conversely, he had many bad moments in New 
York, during a season when he was using a few lines, by tossing 
off the word "switchel bucket," which struck him as funny. Of 
this mishap he said, "I finally learned that the average New 
Yorker would have to go to the dictionary to find out what a 
switchel bucket was, even though Calvin Coolidge was someday 
to present one to the Prince of Wales." 

Like most comedians, Fields compiled a list of "locals" — neigh- 
borhood place names that were good for a laugh in cities where 
he played. He later explained this to a Paramount publicity man, 
Teet Carle, by saying, "In every big city there is always one sure- 
fire laugh, and that lies in hanging some piece of idiocy upon the 
people of a nearby city or town. I did not mean to imply any 
disparagement of those towns, but it's a fact that some names 
just sound funny to people's ears. When I was a boy in Philadel- 
phia, I made that discovery myself. We had a great time at the 

132 



expense of our neighbor, Mr. Muckle, although he was an esti- 
mable gentleman with nothing funny about him except the 
name." When Fields was appearing in Boston, he always men- 
tioned the settlements of Nahant or Scituate ; in Pittsburgh it was 
East Liberty; in Providence, Woonsocket; Los Angeles, Cuca- 
monga; New York, Ganarsie; Chicago, Winnetka; Portland, 
Kennebunkport ; Detroit, Hamtramck; and Philadelphia, Manay- 
unk. 

"For reasons I have never understood," he told Garie, "Alex- 
andria, Virginia, is screamingly funny to Washingtonians, while 
the great city of Oakland never fails to get a chuckle out of San 
Franciscans. And Bismarck, North Dakota, is funny anywhere 
in the United States." 

During a great part of his life, Fields kept a file of odd names 
that he ran across in his travels. He used many of them. "Charles 
Bogle," the pseudonym he preferred, and the one which turned 
up most frequently among the credits for his pictures, was the 
name of a bootlegger of his acquaintance. Bogle, a large, affable 
man, without the quick facility for lawsuits that was to charac- 
terize the generation that followed, enjoyed his literary standing. 
"I used your name on some of those movies of mine, Charlie," 
Fields said he told him once. "You ever see them?" 

"I can't say as I have, Mr. Fields," Bogle replied. "The missus 
and I don't care for the films. Father Dunlavy says they're 
immoral." 

Fields pressed a couple of passes to International House on him, 
and, it being a quiet night for bootlegging, Bogle relaxed his prin- 
ciples and took his wife to the theater. He was filled with pride. 
During the credits, when his name appeared, he nudged a neigh- 
bor diffidently and murmured, "You'll notice my name, sir? A col- 
laboration with Mr. Fields." Thereafter he became so stuck up 
about the Bogle works that he was almost ruined for a bootlegger 

*33 



W. C. Fields 

and his wife began to find him intolerable. She complained to 
Fields that her husband was trying to steal his thunder and begged 
the comedian to find a new pen name. Fields, in an obliging 
humor, used the more memorable "Mahatma Kane Jeeves" for 
his next script. 

"Chester Snavely" was a name that Fields admired. He used it 
in two or three of his short comedies. The original owner, as far 
as he knew, was an undertaker of exceptional accomplishments 
in a suburb of Philadelphia. As a boy, Fields had blundered 
across a damp, crepy cortege led by the spotless Snavely, and, 
curious, had padded along behind. It was a funeral of distinc- 
tion; Fields never forgot either it or Snavely. In fact, he was so 
powerfully influenced that he took steps to avoid a similar festiv- 
ity for himself. The second paragraph of his last will and testa- 
ment read: "I direct my executors immediately upon the 
certificate of my death being signed to have my body placed in an 
inexpensive coffin and taken to a cemetery and cremated, and 
since I do not wish to cause my friends undue inconvenience or 
expense I direct my executors not to have any funeral or other 
ceremony or to permit anyone to view my remains, except as is 
necessary to furnish satisfactory proof of my death." 

In arranging the obsequies, Snavely was only following the 
custom of the day, and one which has altered little in the passing 
years. When Fields came upon the scene, having heard a peculiar 
ululation from his sanctuary in a clump of beeches (where he 
was roasting a borrowed chicken), a brief church service had 
been concluded and the procession was on its way to the grave. 
Deceased, surrounded by flowers, was in the first carriage, an 
open one, and behind him were eight other open, filled carriages, 
a hayrick containing a small party garbed in black, and a buck- 
board somewhat incongruously loaded with limestone blocks. 
The latter mystery was solved when it developed that the driver of 

'34 



the buckboard, a farmer, had no connection with the funeral but 
had been caught behind it on his way home from a lumberyard 
and was having some little difficulty getting around. A group of 
urchins, indifferently attired, was strung out behind the buck- 
board, alternately running and walking, whispering, giggling and 
peering. 

Snavely himself, superbly got up in a cutaway, a pair of striped 
trousers, and a dismal black bowler encircled by a wide band of 
crepe whose ends trailed off behind him, was walking at the head 
of this imposing column. His face was arranged in an expression 
of crushed but competent unction. Fields was impressed by the 
fact that, although it was midsummer and several of the mourners 
were clearly sweltering, one or two men having even slipped out 
of their jackets, Snavely seemed free of perspiration and discom- 
fort. His smooth, bland, elongated face suggested that, in the 
matter of living, he had struck a nice balance between this world 
and the next and, though perpetually bereaved, was invulnerable 
to the annoyances of both. Flanking the procession, at no great 
distance, were a number of lesser functionaries, part-time em- 
ployees of the mortuary, whom Snavely had been trying out 
recently, in a bid for the fashionable trade. They were known as 
"howlers," and operated as a kind of lachrymose claque, to help 
bring up the noise in weak or tiring groups. One of these, a youth 
in his teens, wearing a makeshift costume built around an out- 
sized tuxedo jacket and making passes at his face with a hand- 
kerchief, trotted up alongside the leader as Fields hove into 
earshot near the curb. 

"Everything comfortable astern?" asked Snavely. 

"I'm having a little trouble with number seven, sir," said the 
youth. 

"Friends or relatives?" 

135 



W. C. Fields 

"It's the Wiggins family. They passed a bottle around after 
church and two of the men fell asleep." 

"Well, roust them out. Try ammonia. It's going well, don't you 
think?" 

"I believe it's our best since the Greenwalt job, sir. We won't 
be coming up to that one soon." 

"Well, hardly," said Snavely, with a quick, gelid smile. Then he 
looked around and muttered, "I'll have to take care of that 
farmer." He walked back, leaning in and pressing the arms of 
three or four women on the way, and drew up by the buckboard. 

"Your servant, sir," he said, keeping pace with the horse. 

"Who's dead?" said the farmer unceremoniously. 

"Departed went by the name of Ernest O. Potts," replied 
Snavely, a little stiffly, and added, "of the Germantown Potts." 

"Natural or wiolent?" inquired the farmer. 

"Departed was struck by a suburban local — the three-seven- 
teen, if memory serves me right." 

"Well, we all have to go," said the farmer. 

Snavely nodded lugubriously and said, "How true! And how 
much better for Departed if a real, right-down, frisky job of 
mourning is did on him. What?" 

"I ain't gainsaying it," said the farmer. 

At this point, the undertaker extended, in a sort of sleight-of- 
hand motion, a freshly laundered handkerchief and said, with 
tremulous feeling, "Will you join us, sir? It will appear better 
from sidelines, in a manner of speaking." 

"But won't it look uncommon odd with these blocks?" asked 
the farmer, pointing to his load. 

"The blocks are of no consequence to Departed. He don't 
care." 

"Well, I don't mind if I do," said the farmer, and, taking the 
kerchief, he gave a few warm-up honks. 

136 



In his later accounts of this funeral, which shifted from year 
to year, Fields supplied a wealth of detail. There are, however, 
grounds for the belief that his final version was a composite, for 
which he had drawn on all the funerals he had seen. When the 
procession entered a small, populated section (he said) Snavely 
snapped his fingers several times to summon the howlers. He 
briefed them quickly, with that easy, prostrated finesse for which 
he was noted in the area, and they returned to their stations. 
Then, as the carriages, the hayrick, and the buckboard loaded 
with limestone blocks wheeled solemnly toward the rows of grati- 
fied onlookers, the friends and relatives, vigorously exhorted by 
the howlers, got their teeth into the occasion and raised some 
lamentations that hadn't been matched in those parts for years. 
Even Snavely himself, afterward, said he couldn't recall a more 
heart-warming exhibition of spot woe in his entire career as a 
mortician. It was one of those moments of response, a pure dis- 
tillate of excitement, that knits up the raveled sleeve of the true 
artist. So all-around satisfactory was the racket that, according to 
Fields, Snavely circled the block and had another whack at it, 
and he wasn't disappointed, either — they buckled down just as 
hard the second time. 

In a way, the cemetery was an anticlimax. At the start there 
was a delay while Snavely and two of his helpers put the pit down 
another foot, since the gravediggers had apparently thrown up 
the job in the middle, for some reason. In this interim the Wiggins 
family, having made themselves known to the farmer (who by 
now was deep in the spirit of the affair and was referring to the 
corpse as "Ernie" and "Good old Potts"), unloaded their bottle 
and passed it around surreptitiously. By the time the Reverend 
Sumpter was ready to begin, the farmer had worked himself up 
to the point where he was taking on worse than anybody, and 
several members of the family complained to Snavely that he 

J 37 



W. C. Fields 

was a nuisance and was stealing the show. Snavely got him 
calmed down a little by reminding him what a comfort it was 
that he and Potts would probably be reunited soon, and the 
Reverend Sumpter began. 

It was a difficult sermon. The family agreed afterward that 
the minister had done the best he could with the materials at 
hand. The truth was that, despite his hearty farewell, Potts had 
been something of a rip. Reverend Sumpter pounded away at his 
good points, but at the best they had been pretty sickly and thin, 
and in the aggregate, the message took on more or less the tone of 
an apology. Sumpter said that, although Potts had not been 
active in the church, and in fact was never seen there except on 
Founder's Day, when he turned up for the free dinner, he had 
never actually talked against it; that, as a good many people 
knew who abetted him now and then, present company not 
necessarily excepted, but naming no names, Potts was a good 
deal of a boozer, but he was not a troublesome boozer, and no 
report had ever come to him (Reverend Sumpter) about De- 
parted having knocked his wife or children around to excess ; and 
that, while he was extraordinarily free with his language, to the 
point where no sensitive person would care to get within half a 
mile of him, he had seldom cussed anybody out for purely per- 
sonal reasons, but had stuck fairly close to things like politics and 
sports right down the line. 

They opened the coffin, and Snavely removed a damp cloth 
from the face, and then everybody came up and had a last look. 
Not long after that one of the Wiggins boys tripped and fell in 
the grave, but they got him out in time and lowered Potts to his 
ultimate rest. Then everybody shook hands with the preacher, 
and thanked him, and they all went home. Fields said he had 
never seen anything quite so agreeable in the funeral line; he 
later hung around Snavely's place, and cultivated him, and 
learned all he could about his business. 

138 



"Posthle whistle and Smunn" were names that Fields used 
whenever he felt the need for a fictitious law firm. Smunn was a 
lawyer in Philadelphia, and the majority of the English village 
of Barrow-in-Furness was named Posthlewhistle, according to 
Fields. He picked the name "Prettiwillie" off a lumberyard once 
while riding a train through Michigan; he used it in two of his 
early movies — The Old-Fashioned Way and The Old Army 
Game. 

"Every name I use is an actual name I've seen somewhere," 
he told Norman Taurog, who directed him in Mrs. Wiggs of the 
Cabbage Patch. "If I think they're funny, I remember them. So 
when an opportunity presents itself, I use them in the pictures." 

He used the name "Peppitone" in a short in which he played 
a dentist. The authentic holder of the name, a dentist in Wash- 
ington who had installed some fillings for Fields, wrote him a 
rather sharp letter, saying that the celluloid Peppitone, in his 
opinion, was an outrageous character, of dubious professional 
ethics, and that dentistry was a serious business and should be 
treated more reverently. Although Fields was unmoved, there 
may have been some basis for the writer's complaint. In the film, 
Fields, wearing a dingy white jacket and a faraway expression of 
perplexed ennui, had worked fruitlessly over a client who was so 
heavily bearded he couldn't find his mouth. Added to that, he had 
an office full of pale, bandaged people who kept mistaking the 
noise of a nearby riveting machine for the sound of his drill. 
Peppitone was probably justified in being sore, but the comedian 
dismissed him with a snarl. "The bastard overcharged me," 
Fields said. 

Certainly, Fields had a richer chance to collect odd names than 
most people, since his travels, in the years prior to World War 
I, were interrupted only by sustained performances. He left a 
tortuous trail. On May 28, 1907, for example, he was described 

139 



W. C. Fields 

by the New York Transcript as being "the finest act in the first 
part of the program" at the Jardin de Paris, a roof garden on top 
of the New York Theatre. Again, the week following April 23, 
1908, he was playing the Orpheum in Boston and Hathaway's 
Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts. Variety, having interviewed 
him, said, "When W. C. Fields, the juggler, appears on the other 
side this year he will present a brand-new novelty in the juggling 
line. Fields has been hard at work for several months constructing 
a comedy act which will be the first of its kind ever attempted. He 
will offer an entirely new routine of comedy juggling, featuring a 
burlesque croquet shot in which the croquet ball is made to go 
through all the wickets on one shot, the trick being patterned 
after the pool shot now used in his act." 

The old New York Star of December 19, 1908, had a story 
about Fields. It ran in connection with a picture the juggler had 
drawn of himself. "W. G. Fields, who was recently on a tour of 
English and Continental music halls," the piece said, "is again 
making vaudeville audiences laugh in this country. Mr. Fields' 
comedy is fluent, unforced, and quite unique. No wonder man- 
agers pay him big salaries for making their patrons laugh! He 
does that, all right, and some more besides." Of the caricature 
(whose caption was "The Great Silly") the Star said, "This 
quaint little portrait does only faint justice to his beauty as he 
walks out on the stage in a scrubby beard and evening clothes 
that must have seen better days." On March 2, 1909, he was at 
Keith's in Philadelphia, where the Record said of him, "It would 
be hard to find anybody better in the juggling line than W. C. 
Fields. He is an artist in whose work there is no flaw." On the 
eighteenth of that same month he was up in Boston again, at 
Keith's, where the Traveler felt that "he certainly is a wonder 
when it comes to working those phony tricks." 

Not long after that he went to Europe, and when he returned, 

140 



the Traveler of April 7, 19 10 said, "Fields is back in town. The 
man with the funny legs and the accurate eye is doing his stunts 
amid uproarious delight at Keith's this week. What, child, you 
never heard of Fields? Can it be possible? Don't you recall the 
last time you saw him enter with that dilapidated overcoat and 
lay it carefully on the lounge, placing a few moth balls in the 
folds to keep it from harm, and proceed to do a hundred funny 
things with those three rubber balls?" Variety of that year had 
him listed once as "The International Eccentric Tramp Juggler, 
obtainable through the Buckner International Agency, Long Acre 
Building, New York." The next year, Variety had him billed, at 
his own request, as, simply, "The Originator." Throughout his 
career, Fields was never hampered by false modesty. He took 
another trip abroad, and Vanity Fair, on March 23, 1912, noted, 
"On the mammoth steamer Olympic, due this month, is W. G. 
Fields, the tramp juggler. Fields is returning to America after 
successful foreign engagements to fulfill contracts for his appear- 
ances over the Orpheum Circuit." It was soon apparent that his 
exposures to foreign culture had not slowed him up. The San 
Francisco Chronicle, on August 10, 19 12, said, "It isn't often one 
has a chance to enthuse, let alone rave, over a juggling act, but 
everybody's doing it. Yesterday afternoon's audience cheered W. 
G. Fields until the noise of their enthusiasm reached O'Farrell 
Street and caromed off the fence opposite." And in 19 14, in 
Chicago, the Herald observed that Fields had added, "of all 
things, shillelaghs," to his equipment. Rather than slowing him 
up, his foreign visits were having a profitable broadening effect. 
Among the brilliant qualities that Fields brought to his pro- 
fession was a faultless memory. A long time before, in the shabby 
dressing room of an impecunious road company, he had confided 
his dream of success to a companionable, undernourished player. 
And to himself he had sworn a mighty, theatrical oath, a defiance, 

141 



W. C. Fields 

like Macbeth's, of all obstruction, earthly or supernatural. 
Though castles toppled, though pyramids sloped to their founda- 
tions, even if destruction sickened, he would, someday, make 
a thousand dollars a week. The day at length came to pass. It 
seems quite possible that no sane man would have seized the op- 
portunity that Fields here regarded as golden. In New York, the 
Palace offered him his usual $500 a week; uptown, the Alhambra 
offered him $500 for a late show. It was a regimen that might 
have killed an ordinary performer, but its symbolism, for Fields, 
was too significant to deny. Triumphant, he undertook the dual 
grind. But his contentment, he once observed later, proved 
evanescent. He found that old dreams fulfilled, like old summer 
resorts revisited, are apt to have lost their flavor. From his fleet- 
ing, rueful enjoyment of the moment, with its nostalgic hark- 
back to the time of Fulton's burlesque, he looked on to the green 
pastures. His dissatisfaction had been steadily growing. He was 
the best-known juggler in the world, but he was athirst for larger 
glories. 



142 



BOOK TWO: PART ONE 



CHAPTER FIFTEEN 



F 

JLlEL 



ields' big chance, when it came, was to go 
down as the most crushing anticlimax in the history of the 
American stage. The time was 19 14, not long after the start of 
what later would be described, in the interest of avoiding repeti- 
tion, as World War I. The scene of his good news was Austra- 
lia, one of his favorite places. As he had done with Ireland, Fields 
visited Australia to relax after the gracious tension of England. 
The island continent in the early 1900s was an area of restful 
informality. The interior was occupied by small, gnarled aborig- 
ines, of sanguinary disposition, and the tidewater country sup- 
ported a mixed society of gold miners, sheep raisers, cattlemen, 
and adventurer-refugees from the mellower civilizations. "They 
chew on toothpicks," Fields said. "It puts me at my ease." A den- 
tist had once told him that if he used a toothpick enough he 
would never lose his teeth. Thereafter, in uncritical localities, he 
kept a toothpick in his mouth as much as possible. He grew 
absent-minded about the practice, however, and ran into scat- 
tered censure. For example, years later in Hollywood he drifted 
off to sleep, while nibbling on a toothpick, in a courtroom where 
he was being sued by an energetic doctor, u a servant of human- 
ity," Fields said, "who had done really brilliant work in isolating 
fees." The comedian's lawyer, much agitated, shook him awake 

*43 



W. C. Fields 

roughly. "For heaven's sake, Mr. Fields, get rid of that tooth- 
pick!" he said. 

"What for?" Fields asked. 

"Because the judge might see it and decide against us," the 
lawyer told him. 

Fields was appalled by the logic in this advice. He never forgot 
it. He worked up a long, eloquent, feverish tirade about a system 
of justice in which the merits of a case were forgotten and the 
decision hinged on a defendant's use of a toothpick. At home, 
almost any mention of lawyers or doctors, by guests or by the 
radio, might set him off, and he would go stamping about the 
place, in the manner of Huckleberry Finn's father denouncing 
the government — damning judges, cursing quacks, and in general 
blasting a world in which a harmless addiction to splinters could 
cause the heads to roll. 

After one spirited performance in Melbourne, Fields strolled 
back to his hotel and found a cablegram from Charles Dillingham, 
the New York producer, which said, "Can you come to New York 
immediately. Have speaking part for you in Watch Your Step" 
Fields sat down on the edge of his bed and reflected on the 
vagaries of fortune. The message represented the successful con- 
clusion of a campaign he had conducted with unabated vigor 
since his engagement with Mclntyre and Heath. "Other man- 
agers couldn't seem to see anything except that label of 'comedy 
juggler' that had been pinned on me," he explained to an inter- 
viewer later. "For ten years I fought to get rid of that label. But 
not a manager would let me have a speaking part. I begged and 
pleaded like the rawest beginner, but they only laughed at me 
and told me to stick to the thing I knew how to do. I had to live, 
so I went on with my vaudeville engagements, wandering around 
the world, making plenty of money, but getting more and more 
discouraged about the future." 

144 



The glad tidings from Dillingham distracted Fields to the point 
where he felt the need for a mild stimulant. He ordered a small 
bottle of whisky from room service and drank it thoughtfully, 
after which he put on a false beard, a wig, and a silk hat, and 
threw a property opera cape around his shoulders. Then he went 
out in search of entertainment. If his subsequent account was 
true, he attended a fashionable party, as "Dr. Hugo Sternham- 
mer," a Viennese anthropologist. "I walked along the streets till 
I saw a lot of vehicles lined up in front of a big house," he told 
some friends in Chasen's. "I went up to the door and a butler or 
somebody stuck a silver plate under my nose. I put an old laundry 
check and a dime on it and went on in. It was a very enjoyable 
function. I had a long talk with the governor's wife." 

"What did you talk about, Bill?" one of his friends asked. 

"We talked about the mating habits of the wallaby," Fields 
said. 

He said further that before he left he drank a good deal of 
champagne and juggled some bric-a-brac for a group in one 
corner. Throughout the evening he talked in a heavy German 
accent, drawing suspicious looks from several military men. "I 
remember telling one woman that the Kaiser was my third 
cousin," he said. "She gave a little scream and ran like hell." 
Fields did not recall whether he left the party under his own 
power or was assisted by the butler. He believed, however, that 
he was one of the last to leave, and he had a pretty distinct recol- 
lection of crying out something like "Veedersehen, alles!" as he 
went through the door. 

He canceled the rest of his Australian, New Zealand and 
Tasmanian engagements and went about arranging passage 
home. It was, he found, a difficult undertaking. The German 
raider Emden, sent out by his third cousin, the Kaiser, was harass- 
ing shipping in Australian waters. Twice he managed to get 

H5 



W. C. Fields 

aboard English freighters that steamed outside the harbor only 
to turn back at the sight of an ugly black smudge on the horizon. 
Finally, in Sydney Harbor, he boarded an American tramp and 
slipped out under cover of a foggy night, to open water and com- 
parative safety. The tramp was bound for San Francisco and 
made the trip in thirty-nine days, a period Fields spent mostly on 
deck, juggling, to the delight of the crew. From San Francisco 
he hurried on to New York, by train, and joined the Watch Your 
Step company in Syracuse, two days before the show's out-of- 
town opening there. Dillingham wanted him to do his billiard 
act, with a running patter of jokes. In the two days' time, Fields 
unearthed one of his old commentaries, a sort of omnibus tribute 
to snakes, and polished up his billiard shots. He took part in one 
full rehearsal. 

Meanwhile, Gene Buck, an old fan of Fields', who was now 
Ziegfeld's right-hand man, had decided to come up for the open- 
ing. Knocking about backstage before curtain time, he heard a 
rumor that Fields' act might be dropped, and he sent a note, 
"See me in New York if anything goes wrong," to his dressing 
room toward the end of the show. 

The day after the opening, Dillingham visited Fields and said, 
with what must be regarded as sublime heartlessness, "I'm sorry, 
Bill, but we've got to drop that scene of yours. We haven't room 
for the billiard table." Just what he meant by "room" Fields 
never found out, but Dillingham once told a friend that "the 
billiard act hadn't got over." He believed that it might have been 
because a noisy act preceded it; an axiom of show business is 
that a quiet funny act will always fail in a spot following a noisy 
act. 

In any case, Fields found himself in the unparalleled position 
of having made an expensive, six-week trip halfway around the 
world to play a one-night stand. The experience added another 

146 



measure of suspicious toughness to his outlook on humanity. Also, 
it gave him an even livelier caution about contracts. 

Despite the stunning rebuff of his musical-comedy debut, he 
recovered his composure and his self-confidence quickly. Two 
days later he appeared in Gene Buck's New York office, his ap- 
pearance jaunty and his manner slightly bellicose. His pale blond 
hair was parted in the middle — "like Hoover's," as noted once 
by Geoffrey T. Hellman in The New Yorker — and he was wear- 
ing a fake mustache which clipped into his nose. Fields had 
fashioned the mustache himself, and it gave producers trouble for 
years. He liked to wear it because it looked offensive, according 
to Director Eddie Sutherland. "Bill turned up with it on one day 
in a movie we were making," Sutherland says, "and I said, 'What 
the hell is that dreadful appliance in your nose?' " 

Fields replied, with some heat, that it was a mustache, and 
Sutherland said, "Well, remove it immediately and we'll get on 
with the picture." 

"The mustache stays," said Fields. "What's the matter with 
it?" 

"It's the nastiest-looking thing I ever saw," Sutherland told 
him. "It's making everybody sick." 

Fields insisted on playing one scene with the mustache on, 
saying that it was "well known in the show world" and that it 
was widely viewed as "handsome," but Sutherland and a film 
cutter later got together and quietly tossed the scene out. 

In Buck's office Fields took a chair, without explaining why he 
had chosen to wear his fake mustache for the interview, and said 
indignantly, "Did you catch me in that turkey?" (Watch Your 
Step had a successful opening, both in Syracuse and in New York, 
and played to large audiences for months, but Fields always 
described it as a flop.) 

Buck expressed regret that Fields had got mixed up in such a 

H7 



W. C. Fields 

palpable failure, then said, "I've caught your act many times, 
Bill. I think it might work out in the Follies/ 3 

Fields replied, in a condescending voice, that he'd check his 
commitments, and a few minutes later he began to discuss terms. 
For a man who had just been booted from a cast after one 
performance, he was peculiarly high-handed. To land on the 
legitimate stage, he finally agreed to accept $200 a week, with 
certain strictures about dressing accommodations, billing and 
minor expenses, and Buck signed him for the Ziegfeld Follies of 

19*5- 

In the intervening time, Fields returned to vaudeville, obtaining 

bookings, as before, over the Orpheum Circuit. He commanded 
higher prices, by advertising himself, verbally and a little prema- 
turely, as a full-fledged Follies star. "Wherever he went," says 
one of his friends of that era, "he spoke familiarly of the legiti- 
mate stage and was critical of the best-known musical-comedy 
figures of the day." In his dressing rooms, during these vaudeville 
tours, his attitude was florid and majestic; he had quite plainly 
arrived, but he was tolerant of, and even helpful toward, his 
struggling colleagues. He leaned on a sort of editorial "we," a 
reference to himself and his fellow players of the higher spheres. 
He often laughed indulgently and spoke in the past tense of 
Watch Your Step, which was enjoying an excellent run in New 
York. To newspapermen everywhere, Fields made sage, proprie- 
tary observations about the Follies and the state of musical 
comedy in general. "One gathered that he might make some 
important changes for the forthcoming season," an acquaintance 
has said. 

The Duluth Herald of April 22, 19 15, said, "W. C. Fields is 
closing his vaudeville work next week to go into the Follies, which 
will open in New York June the first, run through the summer, 
and tour to the coast and back during the winter." The inter- 
ns 



view ended with the comment, probably suggested by Fields, 
since it turned up with remarkable similarity elsewhere during 
the period, "An attempt to extol W. G. Fields' merit would re- 
quire the ability to juggle words as adroitly as he does articles." 

The Ziegfeld Follies of 1915, at the New Amsterdam Theatre, 
was graced by many names already famous and others about to 
become famous. As nearly as may be determined, they were re- 
garded as being pretty much of the same common fabric by the 
new man, who "took the line," one of them says, "that all the 
rest of us more or less had feet of clay." Fields appeared as "Him- 
self," a simple tribute he had insisted upon when the show was 
being put together, in Scene Two. He did his billiard act, and the 
audience stopped the show with an uproar of merriment. "W. 
G. Fields contributed a screamingly funny exhibition of pool 
playing," said the New York Mirror. Gene Buck's insight in 
hiring him was borne out handily within half an hour after cur- 
tain time on opening night. In Scene Six he appeared as "Adam 
Fargo" in a skit, "Hallway of the Bunkem Court Apartments," 
with such lesser luminaries as Ann Pennington as "Sammy, a 
messenger boy" ; Bert Williams, as "Thomas, the hall boy" ; and 
Leon Errol as "Constant Bunn." 

The show, nude and rich in the Ziegfeld manner, had many 
rewarding features for revue lovers. Ed Wynn, also as "Himself," 
and Fields' principal rival for comedy pre-eminence, held the 
stage alone in Scene Seven, and other worth-while offerings in- 
cluded a song, "Marie Odile," by Ina Claire; and a dance, 
"Flirtation Medley," by Ann Pennington and George White, 
who was soon to organize a competitive entertainment with his 
Scandals. 

Wynn's grapple with Fields for laughs was destined to come to 
a violent climax and give rise to the most celebrated anecdote of 
the Fields legend. The danger signals were apparent on Novem- 

149 



W. C. Fields 

ber 1 6, 19 15, to the critic of the Detroit News, who observed, 
when the show reached his town on its winter tour, "Incidentally, 
Mr. Fields is losing some laughs in the pool game because Ed 
Wynn, who is funny, too, is cutting up at the same time." The 
blowoff took place in Boston, not long afterward. As Fields manip- 
ulated his wavy cue, Wynn sneaked beneath the table and the 
battle was joined. To Fields' dismay, his laughs began to come 
in the wrong places. He continued to play, collecting off-center 
guffaws and trying to find out why. "The first thing any comedian 
does on getting an unscheduled laugh is to verify the state of his 
buttons ; the second is to look around and see if a cat has walked 
out on the stage," Alva Johnston once wrote. Fields checked both 
of these possibilities and found no cause for alarm. Then he saw 
a quick movement under the table and stepped back for an 
examination. Wynn, all unaware, was "catching flies," as the 
theatrical phrase goes, or stealing laughs by means of funny facial 
expressions, gestures, and other antics. Fields returned to the table 
and continued his act. "I was waiting until I got his head in a 
particularly good lie," he later said to a friend, dropping into 
the handy golfing idiom. 

The chance came about midway in the scene. Fields, acceler- 
ating his action, was piling up laughs, and Wynn, to keep pace, 
was working like a dog below decks. On all fours, he made the 
mistake of thrusting his head out about a foot too far. With the 
juggler's ready eye and co-ordinated muscle, Fields shifted nimbly 
into his backswing. His cue whistled through a half-circle and 
met the objective with the woody "glunk" so dear to the golfer's 
heart. Wynn keeled over with a hoarse sigh, and Fields resumed 
at the billiard table, to tremendous applause. As the act pro- 
gressed, Wynn, struggling toward consciousness, gave vent to an 
occasional loud groan, and each time the audience howled with 
joy, the members making such comments to their neighbors as 

'5° 



"Wonderful turn" and "Those fellows are certainly getting off 
some good ones up there." After the show, Fields went to Ziegfeld 
and offered to incorporate Wynn into the act in that form for 
the rest of the run. Wynn was said to have turned the opportunity 
down. 

On the whole, Fields got along amicably with his colleagues, 
even those of whom he was most jealous. He enjoyed arranging 
pranks to embarrass them. Will Rogers, in dressing-room con- 
versations with Fields and others, often spoke of an old pal of his 
named Clay McGonigle, from Glaremont, Oklahoma. McGonigle 
had a nickname for Rogers, not entirely printable, over which 
Rogers frequently chuckled. Before one performance around 
Thanksgiving time, Fields sent a note to Rogers' dressing room, 
using the nickname and saying, "I'm in town and will be out in 
front watching the show — your old pard, Clay McGonigle." 
Rogers was tickled to death; he addressed the majority of his 
remarks to the absent McGonigle and larded them heavily with 
personal reminiscence. He kept looking around and waiting for 
some kind of response — a laugh or a cowpuncher's yip — but none 
was forthcoming. Nevertheless, he continued to play to McGoni- 
gle throughout the evening, to the intense mystification of the 
audience and the annoyance of the director. 

After the show, Rogers dropped into Fields' dressing room and 
said, "I don't understand it. I didn't hear a peep out of old Clay. 
I'd better go find him." He dressed hurriedly and hung around the 
theater door, then spent most of the night combing saloons and 
railroad stations. He was much chagrined next day, repeating, "I 
sure can't understand what happened to old Clay." When some- 
body tipped him off that Fields had sent the note, he said, "I'll 
get even with that vaudeville ham if it takes me the rest of my 
life." But as far as anybody knows, he never did. 

Fields' relationship with Ziegfeld was one of the oddest in 

'5' 



W. C. Fields 

show business. Although the comedian was a member of the 
Follies for seven years, he and the maestro saw eye to eye on 
practically nothing. The fact is, there was a recognizable air of 
hostility between them. Ziegfeld had no feeling for funny men; 
he regarded them as tiresome but necessary time-fillers, placed on 
stage so that the girls could change. For his part, Fields, though 
he granted that pretty girls had their uses, looked upon them 
dramatically as a harmless backdrop for comedians. "My ex- 
periences with this company were many and varied," he once 
wrote in a series of articles for some newspapers. "Ziegfeld was a 
weird combination of the great showman and the little child. He 
really did not like comedians and tolerated them only because of 
the public. His forte was beautiful girls and costumes with elabo- 
rate settings." 

The producer and the former juggler had their first falling out 
over a golf act Fields had put together during his travels. Like 
the billiard act, it was a parody on the ritual surrounding a 
basically absurd exercise. In its original version Fields had ap- 
peared with an outsize golf bag he'd ordered from an English 
leatherworker. It was about twice as large as the average golf bag 
and was equipped with all the professional appliances favored by 
dedicated, high-score players. It had a prop-up stand, a rolling 
platform, several secret compartments and sliding panels, wrist 
guards, club sheathes, complicated rubber tees, ball brushes, and 
various other indispensable equipment. Inside, he had an extraor- 
dinary collection of clubs, including the usual golfing woods and 
irons, a polo mallet, a buggy whip, an ordinary garden hoe, a 
mole trap, some surveying instruments, and a sizable shovel, 
presumably for getting out of bunkers. Fields' clothing for the act 
was a pointed insult to everybody who had ever appeared on a 
golf course. It was offensive in almost every detail. Reading from 
the top down, he had on a heather cap that stuck up like a mush- 
es 



room, with a button on top, a hideous bow tie, a button-up 
sweater with striped sleeves which were held back by elastic arm- 
bands, limp, voluminous knickers of wild plaid, short socks, and 
three- or four-toned shoes with inch-long spikes. Even so, he was 
in better shape than his caddy, whom he always selected carefully 
as being the most grotesque employee available, and dwarfed or 
otherwise malformed if possible. The caddy's ensemble, a com- 
pendium of links outrages of every land, was built around a 
tam-o'-shanter slightly smaller than an umbrella. 

Fields' manner as he approached the tee was one of solemn 
consecration. He marked out a place for the caddy to stand, 
selected a ball with great care, scrubbed it up, and placed it on 
one of his patented tees; then he tested the wind. Absently, he 
reached back and drew out a club, but it turned out to be the hoe, 
and he gave an agitated start when he saw it. He took the line 
that he had somehow been victimized by the caddy, whom he 
beat vigorously about the head and shoulders before proceeding. 
Then he took a driver and assumed a kind of stance. He sawed 
away for a few minutes, but each time he started to drive he 
turned to the caddy and shouted, "Stand clear and keep your 
eye on the ball!" Before readdressing the ball, Fields changed 
clubs, and the new one, on the backswing, proved to have a pliable 
shaft and looped clear around his neck. He fought his way out, 
flailing the air savagely and uttering threatening cries; then he 
beat up the caddy again. 

The climactic prop of his golf act was a piece of paper that 
blew across the course and fastened around one of his feet as he 
prepared at last to drive. Beginning in a tolerant humor, he 
kicked it loose, but it transferred to his other foot. With a violent 
wrench, he succeeded in kicking it back to the first foot, and then 
he picked it off with the head of his golf club, where it stuck 
snugly. He jabbed the club into the air, whipped it back and 

*53 



W. C. Fields 

forth, and ran around like a man pursued by bees, but the paper 
clung on. By this time Fields' expression was an interesting study 
in wrath. His eyes started from his head, his face was red, and his 
clothing was badly disheveled. He lost his cap, and in retrieving 
it he managed to put it on his golf club instead of his head ; then 
he spent an anxious period trying to find it. He never did get rid 
of the paper. Kicking, jabbing with his club, bawling at his 
caddy, and shouting "Fore!" "Fore!" he was snowed under by a 
threesome of wretched-looking women, who played through in 
wary disgust. "He must have been drinking," one of them said as 
they pulled away. 

Fields varied this act frequently during his last years in vaude- 
ville ; he used a silent version of it for a while in the Follies. When 
he first mentioned it to Ziegfeld, the producer said (as Fields 
later reported to a man who was planning to write his life story ) , 
"It's a great idea, Bill. I think it will be a hit. There's just one 
little thing — we have a yacht set, a gorgeous yacht, the most 
magnificent yacht you've ever seen, and it's all full of beautiful 
girls. So if you'll just change the golf act to a fishing act, I think 
we'll be ready to go." 

"I thought I'd figured out how to handle Ziegfeld," Fields said. 
"So I agreed with him. He went ahead with his plans for the 
yacht, and I went ahead with mine. He kept wanting to see the 
act, but I'd never show it to him. The only thing I'd say was that 
it was working out perfectly. 

"When the time came, I just walked out on the yacht set and 
did my golf act, before he could get the girls on. Afterward, Zieg- 
feld was in tears. It had gone over fine and he couldn't throw it 
out. But he said, 'We'll compromise, Bill. I'm going to insist on 
one beautiful girl being on that stage while you're doing the act.' 
The next performance, one of those long-legged babies of his came 
walking across wearing a short fur jacket and leading a Russian 

'54 



wolfhound. I stopped and let my jaw sag. When she reached the 
center of the stage, I said, 'My, what a beautiful camel! 3 Every- 
body roared and Ziggie threw in the sponge. He was a little sore, 
but he said, 'O. K., Bill, we'll do it your way. It's the first time 
I've ever turned one of my lovely girls into a comedian's prop.' " 

Fields and Ziegfeld used to squabble about money. Besides his 
long-standing habit of asking for a raise every month or two, 
Fields had a trick of running up "incidental expenses." Walter 
Catlett, who was a Follies comedian in those days and later went 
to Hollywood, remembers a scene he and Fields did that caused 
Ziegfeld a lot of suffering. 

"It was a tennis act," Catlett says. "We took turns being 
straight man. It was a very funny act. Bill later assembled a 
croquet act that was very much like it. We minced around em- 
phasizing the dainty aspects of the game as it was played at polite 
upper-class parties of that time. Occasionally we'd have elegant 
little arguments but allow people to understand that we'd really 
like to break each other's necks. 

"Bill insisted on juggling now and then, though it didn't seem 
to fit into the act. Nobody could argue with him. He'd just pull up 
when the notion suited him and juggle until he got tired, then 
we'd go on with the act. He finally conceived the idea of batting 
all the balls out into the audience when we finished. It was a 
popular windup, but at the end of the first week Ziegfeld docked 
Bill's salary eighty-six dollars for tennis balls. 

"Bill stormed in and raised the devil, but Ziegfeld was firm. He 
said, 'Your contract states that you must furnish your own props.' 
Bill never had much use for him from then on out. They fussed a 
good deal at the best. To tell you the truth, Bill didn't like Zieg- 
feld." 

Thereafter, when Fields and Ziegfeld met backstage, Fields 
nodded coldly and studied him with a rather calculating expres- 

*55 



W. C. Fields 

sion. Three months after his salary was docked, he maneuvered 
the producer into giving him a new contract. Fields hired a 
lawyer, at considerable expense, and worked out each paragraph 
with great care. He had bided his time well. One of the clauses 
in the smallest type read: "The management shall provide all 
tennis balls used professionally, though not for personal recrea- 
tion, by the undersigned." 

"Ziegfeld didn't argue," says a man who was there. "He just 
shook his head sadly and signed. Bill was slumped down in a 
chair, looking out of a window. That great mind appeared to be 
occupied elsewhere." 



156 



CHAPTER SIXTEEN 



R 



'arly in his Follies career, Fields met Billy Grady, 
an agent, who was to represent him and travel with him off and 
on for fourteen years. Grady retains many vivid impressions of 
Fields, most of them quite sour. "Bill cheated me continuously 
throughout our association," he says. "He was the closest man 
with a dollar I ever met." Despite their endless wrangles over 
money, Grady stayed on, he thinks, because he was fascinated by 
the bizarre character of his client. "For sheer, unadulterated gall, 
Bill stood alone," Grady says. "He wasn't happy if he wasn't in- 
volved in a scrap of some kind. He thought everybody was trying 
to skin him, so he tried to skin them first. But he had class — I'll 
say that. Bill had class. His most larcenous acts were marked by a 
sort of brilliant dash." 

During one period, when he was between contracts, Fields be- 
gan to get uneasy. He had a mortal fear of unemployment; the 
threat of it almost drove him crazy. At the time, he and Grady 
were living in a sizable suite at the Hotel Astor. As he pondered 
his situation, Fields quickly saw that his salvation lay in accident 
insurance. He dropped into an insurance office and took out a big 
policy, with a remunerative clause about unemployment. Then he 
returned to the Astor, called the company doctor, and went to 
bed. 

*57 



W. C. Fields 

"What in the hell are you doing, you old goat?" asked Grady 
when he came in. (The relationship between the comedian and 
his agent was distinguished by an uninterrupted and rather abra- 
sive exchange of billingsgate.) 

"I've sprained my back," said Fields, regarding Grady steadily 
with his little frosty blue eyes. "The doctor's coming. Take a 
seat over in the corner." 

The doctor arrived a few minutes later and conducted a search 
for symptoms. 

"Where does it hurt?" he said. 

"All over," Fields told him. 

"How'd it happen?" 

"I was juggling some chairs," Fields said. 

The doctor took his temperature again and went over his back 
with a small rubber hammer. Then he said, "I'll have to come 
back at five o'clock. I need more equipment." 

"When do the payments start?" 

"See you around five," the doctor said, and left. 

Fields and Grady had been playing handball in their living 
room for several days, for a dollar a game, and Fields was twelve 
dollars ahead. As soon as the doctor left, he arose and suggested 
that they continue. They played steadily until five o'clock, when 
Fields quit and got back in bed. He just made it. The doctor 
turned up and took his temperature again. By now, because of the 
exertion — Grady had been winning — Fields was overheated and 
sweaty. 

"A singular case," the doctor said, reading the thermometer. 
"Your temperature seems to have gone up." 

"Complete disability," Fields agreed, with a noisy rattle in his 
voice. 

Greatly mystified, the doctor went over the patient's back with 
several additional instruments. He said he was having trouble 

'58 



locating the sprain, an ailment which, like beauty, sometimes 
exists largely in the eye of the sprainee, so to speak. "It may be 
going into something else, such as pneumonia or lockjaw," said 
the doctor. 

He added that he would make a report right away, with the 
usual recommendations, and he left, with a worried look. 

Fields got up again, threw off his robe, and said to Grady, 
"Now, damn you, let's get back at that handball." He served, and 
the game resumed. 

At this point the doctor threw the door open and yelled, "Aha! 
I thought so, you faker!" He ducked back as Fields threw a lamp 
at him, then fled down the stairs. 

"Bill was hopping mad for days," Grady says. "He took the 
attitude that he'd been defrauded. About a week later he said, 'I 
knew that insurance company was no good the minute I stuck my 
head in their door.' " 

Fields' reaction to things was sometimes hard to figure out, 
according to Grady. Once when he was making out his income 
tax — an operation that put him in a blistering humor — Grady 
came in and looked over the papers. "Why, you can't deduct 
those things, you crook!" Grady said. "They'll put you in jail. 
How the hell can I make a living representing an inmate of a 
federal penitentiary?" 

Fields ordered him out of the room and continued to sift the air 
for deductions. "He was too stingy to hire a lawyer," Grady says. 
"Besides, he was pretty sure the lawyers were secretly working for 
the government. I went in my room and sat down, but I was con- 
cerned. He was including things like depreciation on vaudeville 
houses where he'd played, salaries for ball rackers, and donations 
to churches in the Solomon Islands." 

Fields completed his return, filed it with a look of satisfied pride, 
and continued with his engagements. "A few months later," says 

159 



W. C. Fields 

Grady, "he got a check from the government for $1100. They 
said he'd overcharged himself. I thought he'd blow up and crow 
about it, but he almost went out of his mind. He kept yelling, 
'Think! Think of all the things I could have taken off in years 
past! 5 " 

In this period of his Follies celebrity Fields took a fondness for 
big motor cars. "With anything of that sort he was far from 
stingy," Grady says. "He bought the most expensive cars, clothes, 
food, and so on he could find. It was mainly in his dealings with 
people that he began to act like a miser. But he wasn't consistent 
even with that. There were times when he'd sit in a restaurant 
all night rather than pick up the check. Other times, he wouldn't 
let anybody buy as much as a cigar. Bill was full of paradoxes." 
Fields' first car was a seven-passenger, custom-built Cadillac. He 
had the salesman from whom he bought it investigated by a 
detective agency. The man's record seemed to be all right, barring 
a few domestic spats, and Fields paid him in cash, but he insisted 
on getting a receipt signed in the presence of several witnesses, 
including a bootblack he brought in from the street. When the 
garage owner asked if he could drive, he said, with the kind of 
injured pomp that was making him famous, "I've been driving 
professionally since I was ten," or several years before automobiles 
were available. He added that his father had owned one of the 
first cars in Philadelphia, a purposeless lie. The garage people 
were relieved that he could drive. They shook hands with him 
and thanked him for the sale; then he got in the car 
and went about two hundred yards down the street, where he 
hit a parked laundry truck. He bawled out the driver, returned 
to the garage, and had a crushed fender repaired, while he 
delivered a mendacious account of how the laundryman had 
backed out of a driveway, at forty miles an hour, and hit him on 
the opposite side of the street. Although Fields had forked over 

1 60 



$5000 cash for the car, he refused to pay a cent for repairs. He 
took the stand that the garage was liable until he got the auto- 
mobile home. Before he left the second time, the garage people 
insisted on teaching him how to drive. 

"Bill developed into a wonderful driver," Grady says. "He had, 
of course, natural co-ordination, and he was strong and athletic 
besides. He drove fast, took chances, and got into frequent argu- 
ments. During my fourteen years as his agent, I never knew him to 
be wrong. If he went around a curve, jumped up on a parkway 
and ran into a man's front porch, he'd find some reason why the 
house shouldn't have been there." 

It was not hard for Fields to take on persecution complexes, and 
he managed a neat one about road hogs. Within six months after 
he bought the Cadillac he was convinced that 90 per cent of the 
people driving other cars were after his particular scalp. He 
rolled down the highway with a malevolent eye fixed on the 
opposite lane, ready to lock horns at the slightest hostile move. 
This bias, like most of his personal feelings, seeped into his work. 
In the movie // / Had a Million he worked out a sketch which 
represented one of his dreams of long standing. The plot directed 
that a number of persons, including Charles Laughton, Fields, 
Charles Ruggles, and George Raft, be capriciously given a mil- 
lion dollars by an elderly, cynical millionaire, who then studied 
the use each recipient made of the money. Most of the actors 
were content to abide by the ideas of the script writers; Fields 
conceived his own distribution of the windfall. Laughton, an 
obscure clerk for a corporation, walked humbly through several 
anterooms, to deliver a long pent-up Bronx cheer to his boss; 
Raft found himself in a position, as a hunted man, in which he 
couldn't cash his check without being caught ; and Ruggles, in an 
immensely satisfying scene, smashed all the fragile wares in a 
high-class china shop where he'd worked for twenty-odd years, 

161 



W. C. Fields 

Fields, with Allison Skipworth, went to a secondhand car lot and 
bought a collection of wrecks, then asked the proprietor, "Can 
you furnish me some strong, brave drivers?" When his armored 
column was complete, he wheeled out onto the highways looking 
for trouble. "As Bill sat hunched down in that old Ford with his 
straw hat on, he looked just the way he always looked driving a 
car — mean as the devil," one of his friends says. It was a sketch 
that put the comedian in a roseate humor for weeks. In the movie 
he would sight a stranger getting across the line and hold up one 
hand, like a cavalry commander. One of his strong, brave drivers 
would wheel out of column, knock hell out of the offender, and 
the column would proceed to the next enemy of society. Fields 
himself hit two or three cars, for various breaches of conduct. His 
expression, as he rammed them, was demoniac in its glee, and he 
voiced a high, exultant, rallying cry as the fenders dropped. 

During the Follies, too, Fields sharpened his taste for liquor. He 
had become discriminating; he wanted only the choicest brands. 
Consequently, he bought a third wardrobe trunk, had it fitted 
out with pigeonholes like a wine cellar, and stocked it with high- 
test beverages. He took it along wherever he went. Later on he 
decided he was carrying too many clothes, and he devoted an- 
other trunk to liquor. This balance working out about right — two 
trunks full of booze and one of equipment — he made it his stand- 
ard traveling impedimenta for years. Even when he and Grady 
moved between engagements by car, he took one of the dispen- 
saries in the back seat. 

Once, when they were driving to Boston in the winter, Fields 
swerved to miss some children who were coasting, and struck a 
Ford. The Ford's driver, a farmer, was badly dazed. Fields of- 
fered to take care of him while Grady walked to a police station. 
"Bill had his trunk in the back and had been drinking a little," 
Grady says, "but I hadn't had a drink all evening. I found a 

162 



sergeant named O'Malley at the station and we fell into a pleasant 
discussion about the Church. I figured we were going to get off 
scot-free. The sergeant was sympathetic when he heard about the 
crash. He said those things were sometimes unavoidable. I was 
about ready to leave when Fields and the farmer burst in through 
the door. They were both lit up to the sky. Bill had spent half an 
hour getting him drunk. When he saw me, he yelled, 'What are 
you doing, you Irish bum?' The sergeant thought he meant him 
and threw all three of us in jail. It cost us fifty dollars apiece. 
Bill made me pay the farmer's fine out of my own pocket. He 
said I'd handled it undiplomatically." 

Grady was driving the car through the South one night while 
Fields sat in the back seat on the trunk. The comedian was 
drinking what he described as "martinis" ; he had a bottle of gin 
in one hand and a bottle of vermouth in the other, and he took 
alternate pulls, favoring the gin. At an intersection in a country 
town they saw a man with a satchel making signals under a street 
lamp. Grady said, "Fellow wants a ride." 

"Pick him up," cried Fields. "Where's your sense of charity?" 

Grady slowed down, called out, "Hop in the back," and waited 
till the man got aboard. As they drove off, Fields extended the 
gin bottle to him, but the man refused, with a look of offended 
piety. About five miles down the road the stranger took some 
tracts out of his coat pocket and said, "Brothers, I'm a minister 
of the gospel." 

Fields blew a mouthful of gin on the floor and the man went 
on, "You're sinning in this automobile and though I don't ordi- 
narily do no free preaching, I'm going to preach a free sermon 
right here." He examined the tracts and added, "To tell you the 
truth, I'm a-going to give you Number Four." 

"What's Number Four?" said Fields. 

"Galled the 'Evils of Alcohol,' " said the minister. 

163 



W. C. Fields 

Fields leaned forward and said to Grady, "Pull up beside the 
first ditch you see." 

The minister's narrative had reached a point where a roust- 
about had pawned his small daughter's shoes to raise money for 
a drink when Grady slammed on the brakes. "Aus! Aus!" Fields 
began to cry, harking back to his German period, and he kicked 
the minister into the ditch. Then he opened his trunk, removed 
an unopened bottle of gin, and tossed it down beside him. 
"There's my Number Three," he yelled. "Called 'How to Keep 
Warm in a Ditch.' " 

Grady drove on. Fields told him afterward that he'd suspected 
the minister might be a Methodist. He'd had a lot of trouble 
with Methodists, he said, but he refused to describe it in detail. 

Fields loved to motor through the South. He admired the 
Southern customs and traditions. He had a story, which shifted 
from month to month, about a terrible fight he got into with a 
crossing watchman. "I was on my way to Homosassa, Florida,' 
he would say, dwelling lovingly on the name. ("That was prob- 
ably a lie right there," Grady says. "He just liked the name 
Homosassa. He managed to ring it in every time he mentioned 
Florida.") Fields said he was en route to Homosassa on a fishing 
expedition and, on a back road, came on a blocked railroad 
crossing — a spur line grown up with weeds. There was a shack 
about twenty yards down the track. He stopped, and a watchman 
strolled up leisurely. 

"You expecting a train?" Fields asked. 

"Why, no," said the watchman, knocking the tops off some 
weeds with a stick. "I can't rightly say that I am." 

"Not expecting one, hey?" said Fields. 

"No. We only get a train along here on Tuesdays and Thurs- 
days." 

164 



"Unless I'm mistaken," said Fields, "this is Wednesday. Why 
the hell have you got the gate down?" 

"Well, they've been known to turn up early," said the watch- 
man. 

"Open that damned gate," roared Fields. 

"My suggestion would be to try it on the main road. Used to be, 
they didn't put the gate down only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 
but I hain't been up that way in three or four year." 

Fields said he gave the man an average cursing and got out 
to do battle. The fellow was tougher than he looked. With his face 
fixed in a mournful, resigned expression, he hit Fields alongside 
the head with his stick every time Fields swung. "It's my bounden 
duty to pertect railroad prop'ty," he'd say, and, using his stick 
skillfully, duck a haymaker. 

"I finally had to trip him up and brain him with a rock," Fields 
said later. "Then I tore down the crossing gate and went on to 
Homosassa. It was a nerve-racking experience for me." In other 
accounts, he said that he'd also destroyed the watchman's shack 
before he left and that he'd "put to rout" a large section gang 
that had come to the man's aid. 

Fields prided himself on his knowledge of Southern history. 
He always tied it up with his own experiences. He could explain 
the entire South by means of a few personal observations. One 
time at his Hollywood home he got into a brisk argument with a 
college professor, a "doctor" of history, who was outlining the 
technical reasons why Sherman had got through to the sea, with 
statistics on such things as logistics, ordnance, lines of communi- 
cation, and so on. Fields rejected the explanation, substituting a 
theory of his own. It hinged on deliberation. "They move in slow 
motion down there," he said. "I studied Sherman's march — read 
a lot of books about it — and the reason he made it was because 
Southern troops didn't get up till around noon, and most of them 

165 



W. C. Fields 

had breakfast in bed." Later on it developed that Fields was still 
smarting from a near-escape he'd once had from a Southern 
railroad accident. Driving through Georgia with Grady and a 
girl, he skidded on a railroad track and came to rest crossways on 
the rails. The car refused to start. They worked at it appre- 
hensively for five minutes or so and a cracker came along in a 
wagon. 

"A train ever pass along here?" Fields asked. 

The man pulled out an Ingersoll watch, studied it, shook it, 
looked at the sun, wound his watch, and said, "The six-fifteen's 
due right now." 

"Well, get a rope!" Fields yelled. "Pull me out of here." 

The man climbed down from his wagon and tied his horse to 
a sapling, after which he got an old curtain out of the wagon 
and put it over the horse's back to keep off the flies. Then he 
found a piece of rope. He ambled over to the car, sat down on 
the front bumper, and, while he untied a knot in the end of the 
rope, asked pleasantly, "Yawl from the Nawth?" 

Fields, who was in back of the car, futilely shoving, screamed 
at him to quit talking and hurry, and the man tied the rope on. 
Then he untied his horse, put the curtain back in the bed, led 
the horse over, and fixed the other end of the rope to the wagon. 

The horse leaned half-heartedly into the traces, but the car 
still stuck fast. They heard a train whistle far down the tracks. 

"She's coming!" Fields screamed. "We'll have to lighten the 
load." He and Grady started tossing out objects like press 
booklets, hampers, rugs, the girl, borrowed watermelons, and even 
liquor. 

By now the cracker was down with an ear to a rail. "Yes, sir," 
he said, straightening up, "she sure is coming." 

The train, an antediluvian shambles, came clanking around 
a curve at about fifteen miles an hour and stopped. The engineer 

166 



and fireman got out deliberately. They introduced themselves, 
chatted a few minutes, and shoved the car back onto the road. 

As the engine labored off down the tracks, the cracker per- 
mitted himself an observation. "I figured they wasn't any use 
gittin' worked up," he said. "We might as well wait till we got 
some he'p." 

Nearly everywhere he went in the South, Fields ran into alli- 
gators. He had a fixation on the subject. Often, he said, he came 
dangerously close to being eaten. To hear him tell it, the entire 
South was overrun by alligators, most of which had a strong 
personal grudge against him. Grady believes that Fields actually 
did encounter one alligator in the South, at a time when he was 
driving through with Grady and a lady passenger. The day was 
warm and the lady wanted a drink. Fields pulled up beside a 
rotting farmhouse and made inquiries. 

"You'll have to go down to the spring," said the farmer, rous- 
ing himself from a nap on the front porch and pointing to the 
path through the woods. 

Fields took a thermos bottle and stepped down to the spring, 
"about a two-day trip by pack train," he said later. "I figured 
they'd have to get me out with bloodhounds." 

He eventually found the spring, a rivulet of fresh water that 
trickled into a rusty, sunken kettle and then into a slough. But 
as he leaned over to dip in the thermos, an alligator coughed and 
slid off a log on the bank near by. 

"We heard a dreadful cry and Bill came running out of the 
woods, white as a sheet," Grady says. "The thermos was missing 
and he was yelling, 'Start up the motor! Start up the motor!' It 
took a long time to get him quieted down." 

It was not uncommon for Fields to be bullied by animals other 
than dogs. His trouble with a swan, later on in Hollywood, was 
notorious. He had rented a large establishment on Toluca Lake, 

i6y 



W. C. Fields 

a body of water inhabited by a peevish, noisy, outsized white 
swan, which took an instant dislike to Fields. Mary Brian, Bing 
Crosby, and Richard Arlen, who had houses on the lake, recall 
many interesting sights of the comedian fitted out for combat. 
For several days after he moved in, the swan would catch him 
near the shore and chase him back to his house. Then Fields got 
a cane with a curved handle and took to hiding in the reeds near 
the water. He would produce noises that he fancied were recog- 
nizable as authentic swan talk, and, when the bird came in to 
investigate, he would rush out and try to get the cane around 
its neck. 

"Mr. Fields was sure enough scared of that swan," one of his 
former servants says. "Almost every time they met, he wound 
up runnin'." 

After three or four futile brushes with the cane, he decided on 
heavier ordnance, and he switched to a golf club, selecting a 
number-four iron. The bird showed considerable respect for the 
iron, and Fields went on the offensive. He bought a canoe and 
chased the swan all over the lake every day. But no matter how 
hard he paddled, the bird managed to stay out in front. It was 
hot work, and Fields, on one occasion, lay back to rest and get 
his strength up. He dozed off, and the swan circled around, like 
Nelson at Trafalgar, and fell on him from the rear. 

The comedian returned home in a homicidal humor. He 
stormed around the house trying to enlist sympathy for his cause. 
"The goddamned bird broke all the rules of civilized warfare," 
he kept saying. He got a revolver and loaded it up, but one of his 
household talked him into sticking to the golf club. 

Grady cannot be too profuse in his praise of Fields' driving. 
One time during prohibition the comedian heard that a friend on 
Long Island had just received two cases of contraband Irish 
whisky. He and Grady drove out immediately. They and the 

168 



friend spent the night making sure the government would be 
unable to recover part of the whisky, at least, and Fields and 
Grady left for home around dawn. Owing to their host's gener- 
osity, they took five or six quarts along with them, externally. 
Both Fields and Grady later recalled that it was snowing when 
they left, and they settled down for an exhausting drive. En route 
they took frequent pulls at the whisky and remarked at the sur- 
prising length of Long Island. Their heads were pretty fuzzy 
during the trip. They put in at filling stations now and then, 
gassed up, and sought information about the route. However, in 
response to a question like "How far's the Queensboro Bridge?" 
the attendants would only laugh, or stare stupidly. Also, as time 
wore on, the travelers got the cloudy impression that many people 
they talked to were essaying dialects, for some reason. "I don't 
recollect no place name of Manhasset," a man would tell them, 
and they would applaud, then careen on down the road, drinking 
his health. Their heads finally cleared, and Grady found himself 
looking out of a window at a palm tree. They seemed to be in a 
hotel room. He dressed quickly and, while Fields slept on, ex- 
hausted by the Long Island roads, went down in search of a news- 
paper. The first intelligence he gleaned, when he got one, was 
that Ocala, Florida, was expecting no more than a moderate rain- 
fall for that time of year, and that things looked good for a big 
citrus crop. 

He went back to the hotel room and shook up Fields. 

"Paper here says we're in Ocala, Florida," he reported. 

"I always said those Long Island roads were poorly marked," 
Fields replied. 

They lingered on for a week and went on several picnics. They 
left after Fields had been fined two hundred and seven dollars for 
removing two hundred and seven dogwood blossoms from the 
municipal park. 

i6g 



CHAPTER SEVENTEEN 



F 

JLlEL 



ields was in every edition of the Follies from 191 5 
through 1 92 1 . It is interesting to note that never once in that time 
could he have been described accurately as the principal comedian 
on the bill. To begin with, Ziegfeld was always wary of letting one 
name outshine the rest of his show. His attitude was like that of 
a football coach who prefers not to have a team built around a 
star. Besides, Fields had a great deal of high-voltage competition 
for humorous honors in the Follies. In the 19 16 and 1917 ver- 
sions, Fanny Brice was probably the most popular member of the 
cast, and in the latter year Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor and Bert 
Williams also conspired to detract from Fields' quest for singu- 
larity. "The inimitable Mr. Williams impersonates a Grand 
Central redcap," said the New York Times after the 19 17 open- 
ing, "and Mr. Cantor plays the role of a porter's son coming home 
from college. Here surely was an opportunity for a scene of real 
humor between the illiterate father, dubious as to the value of a 
college education, and a member of the haughtily superior second 
generation. But the authors missed their chance completely and 
made the character of the son an unwholesome and objectionable 
type too frequently portrayed on the local stage." 

Although these remarks gave extended space to his rivals, Fields 

170 



Was, on the whole, pleased with their general tone. He was some- 
what less pleased by the next paragraph of the Times review, 
which said, in listing other players, " — Will Rogers, whose wit 
never flags, and William C. Fields, whose tennis game suffers only 
by its similarity with his billiard and croquet stunts." Fields 
always preferred the straightaway rave, the unqualified endorse- 
ment, suitable for promotional use. 

Ziegfeld, with his distrust of comedians, favored subdued laugh- 
ter rather than hearty laughter, if he had to have laughter at all. 
This preference was one of the main bones of contention between 
him and Fields. The truth was that Fields himself leaned to re- 
straint, except when he worked for Ziegfeld. Knowing how the 
producer shrank from emphatic merriment, Fields strove manfully 
for belly laughs. By the Follies of 1920 he was ready with several 
noisy skits, including a car act he had stolen from Harry Tate, 
the Englishman. "Chief expression of the quieter comedy," said 
one of the reviewers of the 1920 edition, "is found in the excellent 
lyrics of Irving Berlin, and for the boisterous there is the automo- 
bile episode, in which W. C. Fields is the leading figure. The latter 
is hardly more than an amplified version of the British Tate's 
'Motoring' and a sketch of the same sort once done by Conroy and 
Le Maire, but it's the sort of comedy which rings true every time. 
Those who have a liking for Miss Ray Dooley, as a howling infant 
in another scene with Mr. Winninger, are entitled to be amused 
by her." 

The 1 92 1 Follies next year was a historic show. Victor Herbert 
and Rudolf Friml wrote music for it, Fanny Brice sang "My 
Man," and "There is the dry and personal humor of Raymond 
Hitchcock," as the World noted, "who opened the show with 
the satirical 'Statue of Liberty' scene. Among the guests," the 
World said, counting the stars on both sides of the footlights, 
were "Mr. and Mrs. Vincent Astor, Mr. and Mrs. Donald 

'7' 



W. C. Fields 

Wagstaff, Ambassador to Germany James W. Gerard and Mrs. 
Gerard, Mr. and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Mr. and Mrs. 
Herbert Bayard Swope, Mr. and Mrs. Julius Fleischmann, and 
Mr. and Mrs. John Ringling." 

Fields appeared in quite a few scenes, or as many as he could 
manage after spirited arguments with Ziegfeld. "His main scene 
this year," Variety thought, "is a subway train. Supported by 
Misses Brice and Dooley, and Hitchy, he got some laughs. This 
skit will work up. It is the kind that only many performances and 
a few accidents can round out. Fields sidled along all through 
the show, appearing wherever a spot was possible, unctuous, 
amusing, always the high-grade jester, always helping the book 
laughs, always feeding as well as partaking. He proved a tower 
of strength in the laugh department. He did no juggling at any 
time." 

The Telegram took note of his successful efforts to annoy Zieg- 
feld, slightly amplifying Variety's account of the subway scene. 
"The Follies is gay as ever," it said, "with only an occasional 
descent into the rough comedy of earlier days. A scene in the 
subway with a family party starting out on vacation affords the 
broadest fun of the piece. The raucous sound of the approaching 
train is a sound all New Yorkers know. In this scene it always 
heralds a bit of boisterous burlesque as the family party tries 
vainly to enter the car." 

Years later Fields was to tell a friend that "the 192 1 Follies was 
my happiest year with Ziegfeld and the best revue I ever saw in 
my life." All the critics found his comedy particularly satisfying, 
but several of them still considered Miss Brice the funniest per- 
former in the show. An out-of-town reviewer said, "Fanny handed 
me the laugh of the season, with her burlesque of Ethel Barry- 
more as Camille. There she lay on her tuberculous bedstead, with 
Raymond Hitchcock as Armand. 'I've been a bad woman,' sighed 

IJ2 



K'meel, 'but such good company.' In her delirium, she failed to 
recognize Hitchie as Armand. 'The face is familiar,' she said, 'but 
I can't place the body.' " 

Fields was fond of Miss Brice, but there were times when he 
found her notoriety tiresome. "The woman's a publicity hog," he 
once told Sam Hardy, an acquaintance in the Follies who was to 
become one of his best friends in after life. 

Outside of burlesque and peep shows, the 1921 Follies was 
probably as naked a public spectacle as America has ever en- 
joyed. Every other set was a kind of Rubens mob scene, featuring 
the female pelt in its most intimate contours. All the reviewers 
mentioned the tall, ripe maidens with especial relish; the con- 
sensus was that Ziegfeld, for the 1921 number, had risen up in a 
distinguished spasm of sexuality. The man for Variety, still a little 
shaken, said, "Mitti the Parisian furore of international nudity 
was the trick sensation. Ziegfeld did not fool the customers. She 
was even nuder than had been described. She wore more on her 
hair than on all the rest of her. And what infinitesimal cobweb 
she wore was perforated, cut out, ventilated." 

Fields' lady friends in this period were mainly theatrical work- 
ers, and Grady occasionally found his choices inexplicable. One 
night during a Follies performance Fields drew Grady aside and 
asked him to go sit with a girl he'd stashed in a private room at 
Billy Haas' restaurant. He said, "Be careful what you say, watch 
your manners. This girl is educated, cultured, refined. I want to 
make an impression on her." Grady scrubbed up a little, changed 
his tie, and went to Haas', where he found Fields' girl in the pri- 
vate room, smoking a cigar, with her feet on the table. "I was dis- 
gusted," he says. "I went back and said, 'What the devil do you 
mean asking me to meet that side-show freak?' 'The girl's eccen- 
tric,' Bill said, 'but she's got class. Did you notice those fifty-cent 
cigars she was smoking?' " 

'73 



W. C. Fields 

Grady says that even in the Follies, with its opportunities for 
rapid turnover, Fields stuck pretty much to one girl at a time. 
"Bill changed women every seven years, as some people get rid 
of the itch," he says. During one seven-year period the comedian 
lived with Bessie Poole, a Ziegfeld girl. He was supposed to have 
had a son by her, and to have cared for the son later through 
weekly payments to Miss Poole. After Fields' death, a Los Angeles 
attorney appeared in court there with "assurances," according to 
the Los Angeles Times, "that the late W. C. Fields, the film comic, 
left a heretofore undisclosed son who may yet make a claim to the 
actor's $800,000 estate." Fields and Miss Poole occupied a com- 
fortable apartment for a while in New York and rented a summer 
place at Onset, Massachusetts, near the home of Victor Moore, 
of whom they saw a good deal. Friends say that Fields was open- 
handed with Miss Poole, presenting her, in addition to her sus- 
tenance, with many expensive gifts. A relative of Fields believes, 
however, that the gifts, which included a Flint automobile and 
diamond jewelry, were handed over with the stipulation that if 
she died, they should all come bouncing back to the comedian. 
Miss Poole died several years after their seven-year siege, and the 
gifts duly bounced back, claims the relative. 

An important member of Fields' staff during the Follies years 
was William Blanche, better known as "Shorty," a dwarf he used 
as stooge. He originally hired Shorty to plague Ziegfeld, who 
was a superstitious man and, like sailors, considered people with 
malformities a menace to good luck. Fields closed a deal with 
Shorty as soon as he heard about this quirk of the producer's. In 
the beginning, Blanche was Fields' dresser, but the arrangement 
proved unsatisfactory. The dwarf was far from bright, and he 
seldom understood an order. As Fields sat making up for his 
scenes, Blanche stood by with a vacant expression, handing over 
things like bathtowels, doilies, pictures, and suitcase straps, none 



of which the comedian could slip into comfortably. Once, before 
a performance around Christmas, Fields declared that he was 
hungry and said to Blanche, "Go out and get me a turkey leg." 
The dwarf nodded, cried, "Right, boss," and hurried away. Sev- 
eral hours passed ; the show was drawing to a close when he came 
back, looking crestfallen. He waited in the dressing room till 
Fields came offstage. "Where the hell have you been?" the 
comedian roared. "I've been starving here for three hours." 

"I'm sorry, boss," said Shorty. "I checked every delicatessen, 
grocery, and restaurant on this side of town, and they said they 
hadn't seen a turkey egg for several years." 

Fields hit him a glancing blow and fired him on the spot. He 
fired Blanche at least twice a week. The action got to be part of 
his routine, like putting on make-up, and looking for flycatchers. 
He fired Blanche once in Chicago on the rather flimsy ground 
that the dischargee was "dangerously unobservant." Fields was 
in a hotel room and sent Shorty out after liquor. It was a brisk 
winter day, enlivened by high winds and snow flurries. When 
Blanche came back into the room, covered with snow, Fields was 
seated at a dressing table. 

"Snowing again?" he asked, without turning around. 

"I don't know," Blanche said. "I didn't notice." 

Fields turned around and saw the snow, then blew up. 

"You're fired!" he yelled. "A burglar could come in here and 
steal everything I've got and you'd look right through him." 

Blanche packed a bag and went out, following the well-estab- 
lished ritual, but Fields saw him on the street two days later. 

"Why the hell haven't you left town?" demanded the comedian. 

"I ordered two suits a week ago and they aren't ready yet," 
said Blanche. 

"You can come back to work," Fields said, "but I'm going to 
dock your salary for walking out on me." 

OS 



W. C. Fields 

Blanche was such a rotten valet that Fields put him in the act. 
"It's selfish of me to hog your incompetence," he told him. "I 
want to share you with the public." Blanche, dressed up for the 
golf act, probably influenced a good many men into giving up the 
game. "How do you want me to look, boss?" he asked when he 
started. "Use your Number Two expression," Fields told him in 
the presence of two or three other actors, and started a conversa- 
tional trend. In the beginning, for the golf act, Fields got Shorty 
a pair of squeaky shoes and had him walk across the green at a 
critical time. This proved to be such a hit that Fields gave it up, 
convinced that Blanche was trying to dominate the act. 

The dwarf had no teeth, and Fields bought him a set of false 
ones, during a period when the two were especially harmonious. 
Blanche could never establish permanent claim to them, how- 
ever, because Fields kept taking them back. Every time the dwarf 
displeased him, he got him down on the floor and repossessed the 
teeth. As a rule, Fields carried Blanche's teeth in a vest pocket and 
would dangle them invitingly when he wanted something difficult 
done. Once when Shorty had been balky he took him to dinner 
at a famous chophouse. He ordered two sirloin steaks, removed 
the dwarf's teeth, and then ate slowly, while Blanche, nearly 
weeping, nuzzled the pitiless fibers. 

"O.K., I'll do it, boss," he said finally. "Hand over the teeth." 

Fields had wanted him to shadow a girl on a night when the 
temperature was five below zero. 

During the Follies, Fields kept all three of his wardrobe trunks, 
including the ones with liquor, in his dressing room. He was 
careless of his clothes, but he guarded the booze like a man keep- 
ing a harem. One of the main reasons he hired Blanche, he told 
somebody later, was to acquire a guard for his liquor. Although 
the dwarf was not much of a drinker, leaning almost entirely to 
short beers, Fields suspected him of raiding the stocks. Often 

i 7 6 



Fields would eye Shorty appraisingly, then yell "Attention!" and 
remove a piece of chalk he carried in another vest pocket. He 
would draw a line on the floor, command Shorty to walk it, and 
step along beside him, alert for faltering as the dwarf trod the 
punitive streak. 

Blanche carried keys to Fields' liquor chests, but the fact gave 
him little comfort. Fields checked both the number of bottles and 
the levels of the liquids every night. It was a rite often enjoyed 
by other members of the company, who dropped in to watch. 

"All set?" Fields would cry, as he sat in a chair in one corner. 

"Ready, boss," Blanche would say. 

"Top shelf." 

"Three full gin, one three quarter, two full vermouth, one about 
half, small bottle bitters." 

"O.K.," Fields would reply. "Hand over to check levels." 

Spotting a case of suspected shrinkage, he would bring out the 
chalk and say, "Stand by to walk the line — you've been guzzling 
again." 

One time when Ziegfeld's superstition was working on him, he 
substituted Ray Dooley, now the wife of Eddie Dowling, for 
Shorty in the golf act. By mischance it had been one of the dwarf's 
worst days. Miss Dooley, in Shorty's clothes, was waiting in the 
wings when Fields came out. Seeing what he took to be his nemesis 
at a propitious, unobserving angle, he tiptoed up and gave Miss 
Dooley a kick that lifted her slightly off the floor. Then he grabbed 
her around the neck and shook her a few times, or until her tam- 
o'-shanter came off and revealed her curls. He was terribly cha- 
grined; he followed her around all day, apologizing. He tried to 
apologize in an undertone during their act, but she began to 
giggle. Later, he made several offers to let her kick him, and each 
time assumed the stance, but she refused. 

At first glance, Fields' treatment of Shorty seemed harsh, but a 

H7 



W. C. Fields 

streak of sentiment underlay the blows, kicks and curses. To begin 
with, he gave the dwarf a much better job than he could have got 
elsewhere. Blanche traveled in fairly good circumstances with 
Fields; he lived a stimulating life, giving rise frequently to his 
unsensitive joke — "Mr. Fields scared me out of a year's growth;" 
and he was paid a decent salary. Fields docked him, verbally, 
several times a day, for one infraction or another, but he never 
actually got around to reducing the cash. Too, as Fields himself 
afterward pointed out, he came through nobly on the dwarf's one 
abiding desire. Often, Blanche remarked wistfully that he'd like to 
have a dress suit. He died while still in the comedian's employ, 
and Fields bought him a nice tuxedo to be buried in. 

Fields made and saved a great deal of money in his Follies years. 
His salary rose from $200 a week to several thousand, in a period 
when income taxes were negligible. "I believe Bill was putting 
away at least $1000 a week right along," says Bill Grady. "He 
would never allow me or anybody else to handle his money a 
minute longer than was necessary. I used to collect his salary, 
bring it to him, and say, Tm headed for the bank, Bill. You want 
me to deposit your check?' He'd make some excuse, acting very 
furtive and mysterious. He had a pretty good idea that I was 
going to rob him." Once in a while, in a badgering humor, Grady 
would ask Fields questions like, "How'd you figure out your sav- 
ings program, Bill?" or "Can you give me some advice on invest- 
ments?" Fields would look around uneasily, and perhaps whistle, 
or pretend to be reading. 

His behavior about money, to the end of his days, was highly 
interesting, and paradoxical in the extreme. Though very guarded 
about his earnings, he sometimes carried tremendous sums on his 
person. These times, his acutest students believe, coincided with 
his feeling that his fame was about to collapse. Certainly he suf- 

178 



fered harkbacks to the starvation periods of his youth. William 
Le Baron once visited a Fields show in Chicago, hoping to sign 
him for a movie, and stepped to his dressing room while the 
comedian was onstage. "The door was open to a public corridor," 
Le Baron says, "and one of his suits was thrown carelessly over a 
chair. In plain view, protruding from a pocket, was a sheaf of 
bills several inches thick. I looked closer; most of them were 
hundreds." Another time, in Hollywood, Gene Fowler visited 
Fields' house and found the proprietor at work in his upstairs 
study. He was dressed in a bathrobe and said he was composing a 
movie script about an idiot widow who kept a boa constrictor 
farm. In one pocket of his robe there was visible a roll of bills that 
was eminently eye-catching, even in Hollywood. 

"What's that in your pocket, Bill?" asked Fowler. 

Fields inspected the pocket, presumably just then aware that it 
was filled. 

"Appears to be bank notes," he said. 

"Looks like a lot of money," said Fowler, who was curious and 
determined to get at the truth. 

"It's four thousand dollars," said Fields, with a stiffening in 
his manner. 

"What's it for, Bill?" 

"It's getaway money," said Fields, and his tone suggested that 
the subject was closed. 

The Follies people knew him as a careful man who was given to 
sudden, inexplicable burst of generosity. But after each one a 
reaction usually set in. One time Fields and Will Rogers and 
Chic Sale attended a big Lambs Club Gambol and went to an 
expensive restaurant later. Fields footed the bills. Then they got 
in his Cadillac and headed toward Long Island, where some 
friends were living. Fields got on a smooth road and accelerated 
his much-prized car to sixty miles an hour. He was basking in 

*79 



W. C. Fields 

the admiration of his distinguished colleagues when a colored boy 
whisked by on a motorcycle. 

"Don't let that boy get around you, Bill. It's bad luck," cried 
Rogers. 

"Have no fears, my friend," Fields said in a pompous voice, 
and he kicked the car up to sixty-five, skidded around a curve, 
and turned over three or four times in a ditch. It was a bad 
accident. Passing motorists called an ambulance, and Rogers, 
with a broken leg, was taken to a hospital. Fields and Sale were 
luckily unhurt, but the latter had smeared grease on the snow- 
white uppers of his new high-button shoes. He kept complaining 
about the damage to his shoes, and his companion was worried. 
Fields apparently gave little thought to the Cadillac, which was 
wrecked, but he inspected the shoes, and dabbed at them with a 
cloth. 

Finally, in the hospital, as they waited for reports on Rogers, 
Fields marched up to Sale and said, "See here, do you hold me 
responsible for those shoes?" 

"It hadn't even entered my mind," said Sale, looking down 
ruefully. 

"Well, I'm going to take care of this," said Fields, "and I want 
you to forget about it." 

"Nonsense," said Sale. 

"I mean it," said Fields. "I'm going to have my cobbler rip 
those greasy parts off and put you on a brand-new set of uppers." 



1 80 



CHAPTER EIGHTEEN 



F 

JLiel 



ields spent a year in George White's Scandals 
after the Follies and then decided that he was ready for a starring 
role. At first he sent out feelers, through Grady, through friends, 
and through other channels less direct, to see how the news might 
burst upon Broadway. His message was, in essence, that Fields 
was willing. Like the carter in Dickens' story, he stood alerted, but 
he shrank from an open statement. Although in years past he 
had begged for a dramatic part, he had grown too big for favors. 
His system worked admirably. Philip Goodman, a producer, 
was preparing to cast a musical comedy by Dorothy Donnelly 
called Poppy. He saw quickly that it had a part almost miracu- 
lously suited to Fields. This insight of Goodman's was not basically 
complimentary, since the role was that of Eustace McGargle, a 
preposterous fraud, whose livelihood was gained by milking the 
citizenry at small country fairs. When Fields got the offer from 
Goodman, he overlooked the tribute to his character, and said, 
on the telephone, "I'll give the piece a reading." Goodman had 
explained the part briefly, and Fields began to experiment with 
the elegant syllables of the high-sounding name. "I think it was 
Eustace McGargle that attracted him more than anything else," 
one if his friends of the period says, "for the money was less than 
he could get from Ziegfeld." 

181 



W. C. Fields 

The show went into production, and Fields, after joining the 
cast, took to prancing and capering in the most expert style. He 
was autocratic about rehearsals, shuffling the players about on- 
stage and giving many valuable hints to the director, an unfortu- 
nate victim of progress who was so cowed by the princely air of 
his comedian that he bowed out before the opening. This was an 
important period in Fields' life, one which had great effect upon 
his later manner. He found all his instincts attuned to the grandi- 
ose humbug of his part; thereafter he seldom strayed far from 
his character in Poppy. The truth is (as one of his closest friends 
notes) that the nomadic peculations of Eustace McGargle would 
have agreed with Fields perfectly. All his life he was distressed 
that he could not live by misdemeanors and small felonies alone. 

Bob Howard, who was to be his trainer years afterward in 
Hollywood, thinks that Fields was essentially a confidence man. 
"When things were going smoothly, Bill was unhappy," he says. 
"He had to have somebody or something to pit his wits against." 
To Howard, Fields made frequent mysterious mentions of his 
past with the shell game. He indicated, with winks and faraway 
mutterings, that he had taken a great deal of money from farmers 
by making the little balls roll. He once told Howard, "I could be 
stranded in any town in the United States with ten cents and 
within an hour make twenty dollars with the shell game." He 
loved to invent tales about how he had gypped people. "Most of it 
was imaginary," Howard says, "but he had a few authentic dodges 
he worked now and then, and they put him in a fine humor." 
One of his favorites was to receive a script from his studio, then 
find all manner of fault with it. He would call his bosses and say, 
"This script's full of holes, but I'll tell you what I'll do— I'll 
straighten it out for fifteen thousand dollars." After that he would 
make a few important-looking marks on the pages and send them 
back. "It really made very little difference one way or the other," 

182 



says Howard, "for when he got on the set he said exactly what 
he pleased." 

Poppy opened at the New Apollo Theatre in New York on the 
third of September, 1923. Miss Donnelly's original draft of the 
play had not called for any juggling, but the final, or Donnelly- 
Fields version, required McGargle to juggle quite a lot. Nobody 
could ever explain why it was that Fields, though he clamored 
for straight comedy parts, insisted on juggling as soon as he got 
them. The show itself was a success, but Fields was a sensation. 
The night of September 3, 1923, ended for all time his appear- 
ances as a co-comedian or as a comedian in a subordinate role. 
He was "made," in the theatrical vernacular. In the space of a 
few hours his brand of juggler was erased forever and the title 
of comedian took its place. Fields was to remember the opening 
of Poppy as one of the great nights of his life. 

Heywood Broun's review is of interest for several reasons. 
e> : Poppy is our idea of a good musical comedy," wrote the late 
columnist-politician-unionist-liberal-Catholic in the New York 
World. "Dorothy Donnelly has provided the new piece at the 
Apollo with a coherent, amusing, and often genuinely dramatic 
book. Indeed, it would be quite possible to forego music and 
build a first-rate comedy around the story which she has fashioned 
of a strolling swindler and his daughter. 

"Still it is better that the musical-comedy method was chosen, 
for otherwise W. C. Fields might not have been hit upon as the 
person to play the sharper. Mr. Fields is so good a juggler that 
recognition of his ability as an actor was delayed until last night. 
Not only does he handle lines just as deftly as cigar boxes, but he 
creates an authentic and appealing character. At the moment we 
can't remember anybody who ever made us laugh more. It is 
first-rate clowning, but that is only the beginning of the job which 
Fields has done. In addition to his familiar but nonetheless hilari- 

183 



W. C. Fields 

ous stunts he gives us a real and complete portrait of as merry a 
rascal as the stage has seen in years. 

"Poppy marks the debut of Miss Madge Kennedy in musical 
comedy, and it is a charming performance, although we have 
here nothing which is not along pretty well-established lines. As 
an adventure Miss Kennedy's dash into songs and dancing and 
such like is good fun, but we trust this does not indicate a per- 
manent vocation. Musical comedy is almost certain to be wasteful 
of a player who is one of the two or three best light-comedy 
actresses in America and the best jarceuse of them all. We like 
her enormously in Poppy, but when she goes home at the end of 
the evening there remain in her equipment of charms and ex- 
cellences at least a hundred and twenty-one things which she has 
had no opportunity to use. 

"The music of Poppy, which was written by Steven Jones and 
Arthur Samuels, is agreeable, but with one exception not difficult 
to forget. However, there is one outstanding song hit which we 
imagine it will be quite impossible to ignore within a month or so. 
The song is called 'Mary 5 and it has that ingratiating persistence 
which will make it insinuate itself deeper and deeper into the 
sounds of our daily life. Two months from today we feel sure we 
shall hate it, but last night it was a rousing tune. There is also a 
good although less infectious number called 'Alibi Baby' and both 
songs fall to Miss Luella Gear. Now Miss Gear doesn't seem to 
sing very much, but she has a way with her and she, too, belongs 
very definitely among the hits of the show. 

"We were also amused by Jimmy Barry, Robert Woolsey, and 
Emma Janvier. Alan Edwards is the young man who marries the 
girl in the last act, and for once the conventional happy ending 
didn't seem a tragedy for the heroine. 

"The first-night audience was enthusiastic about Poppy and it 
should have been." 

184 



Fields enjoyed Broun's review; he clipped it out and saved 
it, but he was especially soothed by the remarks in the Tribune, 
which found fault with much of the proceedings. "Poppy was 
rather a dull show last night except when W. C. Fields, the tramp 
juggler, was operating, which was a good deal of the time," the 
paper's critic felt. "Its infirmities included another sappy Cinder- 
ella story, two or three humdrum hick comedians, and a lot of 
nondescript tunes, all of them appropriate for late dancing. But 
its tiresome elements were insufficient to overcome Mr. Fields' 
infectious good humor; and the entertainment is to be set down 
as laughable though tedious." 

Fields considered that the Tribune man, in his lead paragraph, 
had struck just about the right note of critical inquiry. Some days 
later, however, comparing Broun's rhapsody with the Tribune 3 s 
peevish complaint, he began to wonder about the validity of 
critics in general. It was typical of Fields that, although the critics 
had been unanimously kind to him, he still could find flaws in 
their deportment. "Why the hell should these fellows think for 
the public?" he demanded of a colleague. "They can't even 
agree among themselves." 

The Tribune review continued with details of the comedian's 
performance, saying, "Mr. Fields represented an unctuous faker, 
ransacking the Connecticut country fairs of a hundred years ago, 
accompanied by his lovely and honest daughter. While she ( Miss 
Madge Kennedy) did songs and dancing, her father supplied 
the yokels with magic herbs and balsams. Also, he allowed them 
to speculate with him in the shell game and other devices, greatly 
to the distress of his virtuous offspring. The eloquence of the old- 
time mountebank is a rich and comic language, much funnier 
than that of today's promoter of oil stocks; and Miss Dorothy 
Donnelly, the librettist, has furnished Mr. Fields with many of 
its most priceless phrases. Incidental to the proceedings, Mr. Fields 

'8 5 



W. C. Fields 

indulged in some of his humorous juggling, in one part of which 
he employed mucilage to aid his dexterous manipulations ! It was 
in his smiling counterfeit of the ancient vagabond, however, that 
he was most deft and most amusing. We suspect him to be the 
funniest man in town since Will Rogers went away." 

Fields was distressed to note that by this point in his account the 
Tribune man was beginning to go to pieces, though toward the 
end, in the comedian's opinion, the writer rallied slightly, conclud- 
ing with, "Poppy is a sweet mess out of the everlasting musical- 
comedy honey pots, and savored considerably by Mr. Fields' 
luxurious clowning and by Miss Kennedy's eager and very good 
acting. You can go to it, if you have nothing else to do, without 
being too much ashamed of yourself." 

The other papers were equally impressed by Fields, the Herald 
calling him "as adroit and astonishing as ever at his tricks and 
more comical far than ever. We had seen him do every one of 
the vaudeville stunts before, but had never before come upon 
him when it had occurred to someone that he was also an enor- 
mously amusing comedian who might be entrusted safely with a 
role in a play." 

One of Fields' happiest scenes in the play — somewhat similar 
to a skit he was to do later in the movie Mississippi with Bing 
Crosby — revolved around a poker game in which he condescended 
to take a hand. During rehearsals Fields had insisted on the scene, 
helping to put it together, he said, "from experience." As he de- 
veloped the sketch, he gave out that he had participated in some 
of the most earth-shaking poker sessions in American gambling 
history and that he had unmercifully trimmed the cleverest sharp- 
ers in the game. 

"Where did you do most of this, Mr. Fields?" one of the 
young actors asked him. 

186 



"Hither and yon," Fields said, using a stock answer he was 
favoring in that period. 

The truth is that he practically never gambled on anything. He 
felt that there was an ugly element of chance in gambling which 
made it possible for somebody other than himself to win. In his 
wealthiest phase he shied away from the relaxing dedication to 
dice, cards and horses that was favored by many of his success- 
ful friends. However, it was never difficult for him to persuade 
producers, whether in the theater or in movies, to allow him fic- 
tional gambling scenes. There was something so blatantly felonious 
about the sight of Fields in a poker game that its humor was 
assured from the start. The unlikely possibility that his compan- 
ions at the table could look at him and feel at ease shook the 
imagination. His whole manner suggested fakery in its most 
flagrant form ; he was the apotheosis of the quack. Two or three 
of his friends feel that the spirit of Fields has been preserved by 
one of the stills from My Little Chickadee, which shows him, as 
Cuthbert J. Twillie, a crooked oil man, in a Western poker game 
with several desperadoes. Most of them are eying him apprais- 
ingly, as if trying to make up their minds what to do about him. 
Fields himself is rigged out in a cutaway, striped trousers, and a 
high gray felt hat with a broad black band ; he is wearing formal 
white gloves, which are turned back delicately, and he has a wilted 
lily in his buttonhole. His hands, graceful and expressive, are care- 
fully shielding his cards from any possible snooping by the man 
on his left, while his own furtive, suspicious gaze is plainly directed 
into the hand of the player on his right. His attitude is so frankly 
dishonest that the other players seem to sense the inevitability of 
their financial downfall. Their stunned faces pay homage to a 
situation, and a character, which defy all the known rules regard- 
ing cheats. 

Of his poker game in Poppy, the Herald said admiringly, "The 

i8 7 



W. C. Fields 

stud game in which he manages to deal himself four fours and to 
win a thousand-dollar pot without having undergone the burden- 
some necessity of putting up any money himself is the most 
hilarious minor episode of the new season." 

The Robert Woolsey mentioned in Broun's review was a young 
comedian who, a few years later, would come to be known as one 
of the most popular players in the movies. With Bert Wheeler 
and Dorothy Lee (now Mrs. John Beresbach of Chicago) Wool- 
sey was to have a vogue in musical comedies somewhat com- 
parable to that of Eddie Cantor and Danny Kaye. At the time 
of Poppy, though, he was struggling in the best tradition of impe- 
cunious juveniles everywhere. The Herald review tendered him a 
classic left-handed compliment, saying that "Miss Gear was 
helped enormously through the 'Mary' matter by Robert Woolsey, 
one of those complacent, sledge-hammer comics whom, up to 
then, a good many of us had rather intended to kill." 

Despite the Herald, Woolsey was to go ahead and ride a crest 
of Hollywood fame at a time when Field, his superior comedian 
of the Poppy cast, was having movie troubles of the direst kind. 

Poppy ran for more than a year and Fields got to be a big man 
around town. He was sought out by celebrities and socialites, 
nearly all of whom made him nervous. He had a not-uncommon 
personality quirk : persons in the upper social brackets made him 
ill at ease. He was never at his best, for a while, with people who 
were in any way exalted. He was diffident, and a little tense, until 
he got to know them well, and then, having their number, he 
would re-establish his usual condescension in an excessive degree. 

William Le Baron, who was to employ Fields for Paramount 
soon after Poppy, recalls a party the comedian gave at a house 
he'd taken for the summer in Bayside, Long Island. Hot summers 
bothered Fields; the sun plagued his nose, causing it to turn red 
and expand. When he went to bed at night, he had to rub Allen's 

188 



Footease on it, and this struck him as a nuisance. His house at 
Bayside, which was to give him the benefit of cooling ocean 
breezes and eliminate the Footease, was discovered by a group of 
couples from the Westbury horse set. Happily, they demanded 
that their famous parishioner entertain them. Fields' stable lore 
was pretty well limited to a rear view of the ice horse he had 
followed in his youth, and he was further awed by the formidable 
lineage of the well-meaning but saddle-weary clique that had 
flushed him. "The fact is," says Le Baron, "they were very nice 
people and approached Bill in no spirit of slumming. They liked 
and enjoyed him both on the stage and in person." 

Fields began to organize a formal dinner, though stricken with 
icy waves of social terror. At length, in a pitiable condition, he 
called Le Baron and said, "I'm in a hell of a mess. I don't know 
anything about dinner parties. You've got to come over here and 
give me a hand." Le Baron agreed to lend both his counsel and 
his presence, and he repaired forthwith to the battle front. 
Fields was wild and perspiring, but he was proceeding with great 
fanfare. He had put on some extra servants, including a spot but- 
ler of mien almost crushingly aristocratic. He towered over his em- 
ployer, and his craggy features looked down upon a world that was 
patently inadequate to his background and proclivities. His name 
was Fillmore, but Fields, when Le Baron arrived, was addressing 
him as "Mr. Fillmore," and making a slight, involuntary gesture 
as of pulling his forelock. Toward the end of the party, by which 
time the comedian had recovered his composure, he was calling 
the butler "son" and "Bud," and ordering him about like a poodle. 
Fields later said he learned that Fillmore had come by his patrician 
attitude honestly ; he was the son of a very successful waiter and 
had worked for a space as doorman at a fashionable hotel. 

Fields had bought a large quantity of European wines and or- 
dered foods of the most exotic order. He had inspected a handy 

189 



W. C. Fields 

booklet called The Gourmet's Guide, which he bought in a station- 
ery store, and had arranged a digestive line-up which set him back 
several hundred dollars. Even Fillmore looked a little impressed 
when he surveyed the larder. The comedian had also done a bang- 
up job on his person : he had arrayed himself in evening clothes of 
faultless good taste and was brushed, pruned, barbered, dry- 
cleaned and pressed to a magnificent degree. Notwithstanding his 
progress, he was rigid with tension when Le Baron arrived, some 
hour or so ahead of the first guests. "How's everything look, how's 
everything look?" Fields kept babbling, and Le Baron advised him 
to sit down and relax. 

"I don't know what to say to these people," Fields said. 

"Why don't you just try being natural?" Le Baron replied. 

His advice went all unheeded, for Fields greeted his guests, when 
they began to turn up, with a sedate, upper-class restraint that was 
only slightly less painful than Fillmore's. He was very stiff and 
proper, and he had settled on a sort of broad-a singsong as being 
the precise accent of the aristocracy. Fillmore served drinks — 
small, unostentatious ones — and the group filed funereally in to 
dinner. Le Baron kept trying to jolly Fields up, but during the 
hors d'oeuvres, the fish and the partridge, Fields' demeanor bore 
a strong resemblance to that of an elderly, bilious floorwalker. His 
guests probed gently for humor, but he gave them genteel obser- 
vations on the weather and a discourse on a novel he'd been read- 
ing by a man named Meredith. 

"I think it was about simultaneous with the filet," says Le 
Baron, "that Bill looked around and saw, to his surprise, that his 
guests were people just like himself. I think it came as a terrible 
shock." 

The comedian let his muscles sag a trifle, advanced one elbow 
to the table, and told a scrubbed-up lie about a widow he'd known 
in New Guinea. The response was so brisk that he began to beam, 

igo 



and snapped his fingers at the butler. "Fill up the wineglasses, Fil- 
bert," he said. "Keep it coming." A man near the far end of the 
table responded with an amusing incident he had witnessed in a 
Pullman, and Fields rose to his feet. Walking around the room 
(thereafter for the rest of his life he was to be more or less in transit 
at dinner parties) he launched a series of uproariously funny 
exaggerations about his travels, dropping his broad a in the proc- 
ess. Everybody loosened up, and the conversation departed from 
the enervating politesse of the first few courses. The night was 
humid, and Fields asked permission to loosen his collar. His 
suggestion prompted another man to remove his shirt, then a 
young matron observed that her feet hurt, and she took off her 
shoes. The evening wore on, relaxed, rich in anecdote, an oc- 
casion of memorable grace and warmth. Midnight found Fields, 
minus his tie, collar and shirt, sitting with his feet propped up on 
the table, an empty champagne bottle balanced on his head, 
deep in an analysis of show people. 

"It was really quite a worth-while business," says Le Baron, 
"of a kind that was rare with Bill before or afterward. He was 
not really a gregarious man. He didn't seek people out; they 
sought him." 

For weeks after his party, Fields raved about what a fine time 
he'd had, and how much he enjoyed his guests. But their sub- 
sequent invitations found him as elusive as ever; he made excuses, 
as was his instinct always. 



191 



CHAPTER NINETEEN 



T 

JLhi 



he debut in motion pictures of the man who was 
to become that industry's most famous comedian took place on 
Long Island in 1925. D. W. Griffith, a nickelodeon pioneer who 
was noted principally for "spectacles," many of them quite stark, 
had been assigned by Paramount to do a film version of Poppy, 
starring Carol Dempster, a winsome cinema ingenue of the period. 
It was the custom of movies then, as now, to strive for popularity 
on the basis of their "stars," with the result that, through the years, 
the public has been treated to such masterworks of casting as Wal- 
lace Beery as Long John Silver, Robert Walker as Johannes 
Brahms, Shirley Temple as Henry the Eighth, George Arliss as 
John L. Sullivan, and Martha Raye as Camille. Paramount, medi- 
tating on Poppy, regretfully discarded Fatty Arbuckle and 
"Freckles" Barry, and turned to Fields as a last resort. It was an 
inevitable choice; Fields had made the part and could play it in 
his sleep. Paramount rather hoped that he would, for it was the 
company's plan to trim Eustace McGargle to the bone so that 
Miss Dempster could shine the more brilliantly for her following — 
a mixture of shopgirls and male equivalents of bobby soxers. 

The plan ganged badly agley, as the poet Burns had suggested 
that it might. Fields appeared at Paramount's Long Island studio 

IQ2 



wearing his clip-in mustache and his most overbearing manner. 
His first act was to pre-empt the star's dressing room. When Miss 
Dempster had been revived with ammonia, a conference was held 
about the script. The problem of lines was, of course, non-existent, 
since the movie was silent, but Fields was told that many scenes 
that had been much favored by the legitimate audiences would 
be deleted. In their stead, Miss Dempster would substitute things 
such as a Slavonic folk dance, a scene in which her mother died, 
at a snail's pace, and several passages featuring wooing, ranging 
from sweet to hot. Fields retired to his dressing room, seated him- 
self in a comfortable rocker, and indicated that the movie was at 
a standstill, which was correct. The bosses shouted in vain. Even- 
tually, rather than scrap the project, they more or less allowed him 
a free hand, forging the first link of a chain of similar compromises 
with which Hollywood would become all too familiar during the 
following years. 

"In the windup," William Le Baron recalls, "they tried des- 
perately even to keep Miss Dempster's part on an equal footing 
with Bill's. But it was no use — he walked off with the picture, and 
made everybody half mad in the process. He was just suited ; that 
kind of thing was right in his line. When he left the set at the end 
he looked watchful but triumphant. He'd got the upper hand and 
he couldn't have been happier." 

The film version of Poppy, whose title was changed to Sally of 
the Sawdust, as being more commonplace and unwieldy, showed 
to satisfied audiences everywhere. The studio heads congratulated 
themselves on having had the foresight to encourage initiative in 
their comedian. A year later, Le Baron, who had taken no official 
hand in Sally of the Sawdust, signed Fields for several additional 
pictures. Le Baron had come to Paramount only recently, having 
previously written plays, edited Collier's Weekly, and then man- 
aged, briefly, William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan motion- 

193 



W. C. Fields 

picture enterprises on Long Island. He signed with Hearst believ- 
ing he was to edit the Cosmopolitan magazine, but when he re- 
ported for work Hearst sent him out to the studio. "I don't know 
anything about pictures," Le Baron told him. "Neither do the 
people that are making them," replied Hearst. Hoping to be fired 
quickly, Le Baron converted Frank Borzage, a leading man Hearst 
had imported from Hollywood, into a director and turned out a 
spectacularly quick film treatment of a book he'd liked, Fannie 
Hurst's Humoresque. The picture bore the hallmarks of an igno- 
ramus, was hailed as a classic, and was widely showered with 
gold medals. Le Baron decided that the medium had possibilities ; 
to bone up, he attended several movies, since he had previously 
seen only a handful, all of which put him to sleep. 

Le Baron and Fields made a felicitous team of employer-em- 
ployee. Le Baron thought Fields was hilariously funny, both per- 
sonally and professionally, and was content to put up with a great 
deal of bullying, minor fraud, and humbug. Fields, for his part, 
trusted Le Baron, insofar as he trusted any human being, and was 
amenable to limited counsel and direction. Among Le Baron's 
first acts, upon acquiring the stormy petrel of the Follies, was to 
assign a director with whom Fields might work in some semblance 
of peace. Looking around, he decided that a new man named 
Gregory La Cava and Fields had many points in common. La 
Cava had come to Paramount as a gag writer from the New York 
Sunday Herald, for which he had done a cartoon strip with Milt 
Gross. He was interested in animated cartoons, and trained most 
of Disney's first artists. His first directing job for Le Baron was on 
an automobile racing picture starring Richard Dix. The original 
director on the project had withdrawn, saying that he knew noth- 
ing whatever about racing. "What do you know about racing?" 
Le Baron asked La Cava. "Everything," replied La Cava quietly. 
It later developed that he'd never seen an automobile race in his 

194 



life, nor had he known anybody who had seen one, but he turned 
out some memorable scenes with Richard Dix. Certainly Dix will 
never forget them, for he came within a hair of being killed on 
several occasions. It was La Cava's hope to get the feeling of mo- 
tion into his racing picture, and to that end he threw in everything 
he could think of — wrecks, fires, explosions, death, smoke, dust, 
and all-around destruction. "Throughout the picture," says Le 
Baron, "the air was clogged with flying humans and automotive 
parts." 

La Cava had a certain subdued but reckless humor that Le 
Baron believed would be attractive to Fields. The producer's 
bringing them together provided one of the enduring friendships 
of Fields' life, but it struck fire from the beginning and continued 
to be rackety to the end. The first picture they worked on to- 
gether was So's Your Old Man. After the first day's shooting, Le 
Baron came onto the set and drew La Cava aside. 

"How do you like him?" 

"He's a terribly mean man," said La Cava. 

Later in the day, Le Baron cornered Fields and said, "What do 
you think of La Cava?" 

"He's a dago son of a bitch," replied Fields, with his usual 
loose grouping of people and events. 

After two weeks Le Baron consulted La Cava again. "How 
do you like him now, Greg?" he asked hopefully. 

"I hate his guts," said La Cava, "but he's the greatest come- 
dian that ever lived." 

As before, Le Baron queried Fields later on, saying, "How are 
you and La Cava making out, Bill?" 

"I can't stand the bastard," said Fields, "but he's the best 
director in the business." 

The sets that Fields and La Cava worked on were always popu- 
lar. Employees from the neighboring sets liked to drop in and 

i95 



W. C. Fields 

visit. The actor and the director were generally locked in a 
jangling row. "It was almost impossible to drive a new idea down 
Bill's throat," La Cava says today. So's Your Old Man was sup- 
posed to be a wistful, tender, rather touching story about a 
princess who visited Fields' home town. Fields cared little or 
nothing for the mood of the piece. The fourth morning of work, 
La Cava got on the scene, found Fields there early, the cameras 
set up and grinding, and dirt and other debris rising from one 
corner of the lot. 

"What in the hell's going on here?" he cried, running up, terri- 
bly agitated. 

"Mr. Fields said this would be an excellent time to work in his 
golf act," said one of the cameramen, pointing to the disturbance 
in the corner. 

"Why, you can't see anything but dirt flying," said La Cava. 
He told them to knock off grinding. 

By now Fields had stopped swinging and was looking on with 
contemptuous suspicion. 

"You know that golf act won't fit into this thing, Bill," said 
La Cava, approaching warily. 

"Why not?" demanded the comedian. 

"It's not that kind of a story. What about the princess?" 

"We can use her as a caddy," suggested Fields. 

After three or four very strenuous hours, La Cava talked Fields 
out of playing golf in the middle of the plot, and the shooting 
resumed. 

A few days later Fields came onto the set bristling with im- 
portance. He had a "wonderful gag" he'd worked out the previous 
night, when he had insomnia. He and La Cava sat down, and 
Fields explained. 

"Well, there's a big bunch of cattails," he began, but La Cava 
interrupted by saying, "We've shot all over the lot. Any audience 

196 



will know there aren't any cattails growing around here by now." 

"This can be across the street, at a neighbor's," Fields went 
on. "Hell, those things grow up overnight, anyway. Well, I'm 
out in the middle of them with a big scythe and I'm cutting down 
cattails, and all of a sudden a Manx cat runs out, see?" 

La Cava regarded him speculatively for a moment, then he 
said, "Where's it funny?" 

"Why, it's a Manx cat," said Fields. "I cut the bastard's tail 
off. Don't you get it?" 

"I get it all right," said La Cava, "and it's repulsive. Half of 
the audience will think you actually did cut the cat's tail off." 

"Well, we're going to do this scene," said Fields. "I've made up 
my mind. I like it." 

La Cava said he'd have to talk to the producer first. When he 
returned from the supposed talk, he told Fields that, since the 
costs of the picture were running dangerously high, the producer 
wanted the cattail episode done at the end, as an extra scene. 
"They say we'll have to do it separately, Bill," La Cava said. "It'll 
be better that way — we'll be able to give it the careful treatment 
it deserves." 

When So's Your Old Man was finished, La Cava didn't men- 
tion the cattails, and neither did his comedian. It was presumed 
that he had forgotten it. But Fields never really forgot anything. 
A few months later, when he was working on another picture, its 
director came to La Cava, much perturbed, and said, "Say, 
I'm having trouble with Bill Fields over a scene involving a Manx 
cat. He's got some laborers sticking a lot of cattails in the ground, 
and he's sitting on a box sharpening up a scythe. What do you 
think I ought to do?" 

"Tell him you're running over the budget and that you'll work 
the scene in as an extra at the end," advised La Cava. "That's 
what I did." 

*97 



W. C. Fields 

For several years La Cava kept hearing reports that Fields was 
trying to work his cattail gag into a movie. For once, all his at- 
tempts were unsuccessful; despite the brilliant conception of the 
scene, no director seemed willing to subordinate a plot to it. 

La Cava and Fields made So's Your Old Man in 1926 and 
Running Wild in 1927. Both pictures were done for Paramount 
and released through Famous Players Lasky. Fields remained 
steadily intractable throughout. One day on the set he found that 
the script (to which he had previously agreed) called for him to 
wrestle with a bear. A trainer had just arrived towing a rather 
scaly-looking but substantial black bear on the end of a chain. 

"What's this?" Fields cried, drawing up in indignant appre- 
hension. 

"Man's got the bear you're to wrestle with," said La Cava. 

"The hell with it," Fields cried. "I won't do it." 

The trainer was to get thirty dollars a day for the use of his 
animal and he was anxious not to lose the job. 

"Is a gentle bear," he cried, in a slight accent. "Bear never 
hurt no mans. See here, one can hit the bear. One hits the bear 
in the nose," and he reached over and rapped the bear soundly. 

The bear shook its head with an annoyed expression and un- 
corked a left hook that stretched the trainer flat on his back. 

"Take that damned bear away from here!" Fields roared. "I 
don't even like his smell." 

The trainer, pretty groggy, was rising to one knee, muttering 
something that sounded like, "I'll get him next round," but 
Fields kept yelling to remove the bear, which, standing a little to 
one side, had the appearance of waiting in a neutral corner. 

The trainer's head soon cleared and he apologized profusely, 
saying that the bear was always a little jumpy during an opening. 
"No harm in this bear," he emphasized. "He's just a big kid." 

Fields remained adamant, and the trainer suggested an alter- 

i 9 8 



native : he would put on an old bearskin he had at home and do 
the wrestling himself. Fields agreed, with a snarl. A few minutes 
after they had begun to wrestle, the trainer, working methodically, 
eager to make up for the bear's poor showing, applied a flying 
mare to his opponent and brought him crashing to the pave- 
ment. Fields arose weakly; he seemed to be trying to say some- 
thing. La Cava bent an ear to his lips and listened intently. 

The director straightened up in a second, his face animated. 
"Mr. Fields says to take the bearskin home and bring back the 
bear," he told the trainer. The bear was returned to the set, and 
the scene was shot as originally planned. 

La Cava studied Fields for years and has interesting theories 
about him. He believes, as do several others, that Fields' personal 
and professional later life was dedicated to repaying society for 
the hurts of his childhood. "Nearly everything Bill tried to get 
into his movies was something that lashed out at the world," he 
says. "The peculiar thing is that although he thought he was 
being pretty mean there wasn't any real sting in it. It was only 
funny. Bill never really wanted to hurt anybody. He just felt an 
obligation." 

Years after their Long Island phase, when both Fields and La 
Cava were living in big houses in Hollywood, La Cava would 
drive Fields into a frenzy by analyzing his gifts. "You're not a 
natural comedian, Bill," he'd say. "You're a counter puncher. 
You're the greatest straight man that ever lived. It's a mistake for 
you ever to do the leading. When you start to bawl out and ham 
around and trip over things, you're pushing. I hate to see it, Bill." 

"What do you know about comedy, you dago bastard?" Fields 
would growl, and go out on the lawn and sulk. 

La Cava once told Fields, "Bill, I'm making a picture down at 
Paramount that I want you to study. It's a comedy, and we're 
using some new techniques." 

*99 



W. C. Fields 

Fields laughed scornfully, re-emphasized his classification of 
La Cava by race and ancestry, and said, "I'll be down in the front 
row — with a basket of last month's eggs." 

The picture was My Man Godfrey, with Carole Lombard and 
William Powell, which won La Cava the New York critics' award 
for best direction in 1934. Fields went to see it, but refused to 
deliver an opinion on it for several days. La Cava, who loved to 
badger him, kept mentioning the movie in a deprecating way 
whenever they met. "I thought the thing was funny, at first," he 
said, "but I see what you mean now. I had another look at it a 
few nights ago, and it's awful. It's strained." 

"The picture is amusing in spots," said Fields, in a stiffish 
tone. 

"Well, we should have slapsticked it up some," said La Cava. 

"You'd have ruined it," Fields said, a reminiscent look coming 
into his eye. "The fact is, you dago son of a bitch," he went on, 
"the thing was as funny as hell." 

Over several drinks, and in a boisterous good humor, La Cava 
explained to Fields the new techniques which had helped keep his 
cast and crew in top comic condition. On the first day of shooting, 
La Cava announced that he was planning to follow no set script, 
but would just shoot whatever came to mind at the moment. Also, 
he said, it might be fun to maintain a sort of party atmosphere on 
the set. Accordingly, he arrived each day with many bottled 
drinks, canapes, and other equipment usually reserved for the 
cocktail hour. The morning was generally given over to warming 
up to a festive mood, with anecdotes, frequent visits to the re- 
fectory table, and, on occasion, song. Then somebody, perhaps 
spotting a camera or other piece of technical apparatus, might 
remember the movie, and the conversation would take a profes- 
sional turn. 

"We might as well fix up a scene, fellows," La Cava would 

200 



cry, and call for suggestions. His writers would get busy, and 
others would come forward with ideas — Miss Lombard, or Mr. 
Powell, or perhaps Eugene Pallette or Mischa Auer, who were 
in the cast. Again, it might be a prop boy, or a watchman. Once 
something was worked up, they would shoot it leisurely, attempt- 
ing, meanwhile, to maintain the party spirit, and then start draw- 
ing corks for the next scene. 

The picture was by no means made possible by liquor, but La 
Cava believes that his keen analysis of the causes and cures of 
scenario tension was much appreciated by the company. 

Fields spent a lot of time with La Cava and Gene Fowler in 
Hollywood, though neither of the latter, by that stage, would have 
anything to do with him professionally. Once in a while, when 
they were together, Fields would become animated over the 
possibility of his starring in a picture which La Cava would direct 
and Fowler would write. Both La Cava and Fowler would laugh 
loudly. "We don't want any truck with such a mean, cantan- 
kerous old man," they'd tell him. "I wouldn't direct you if you 
were the last actor alive," La Cava would add, and Fowler would 
chip in with, "Bill, if I ever get an urge to write for you, I'll know 
it's time to go back to the newspapers." 

Fowler nearly slipped up on this resolve one time. Fields had 
indicated that he was wildly enthusiastic over Fowler's new book, 
Salute to Yesterday. He sent a telegram to Fowler, who had made 
a trip to New York in connection with the book's publication, 
which read as follows: "Had to go to four shops to buy eleven 
copies of Salute to Yesterday. This gives you some idea of how it 
is selling here. I am half through the book. It is the meatiest and 
fruitiest tale I have ever read. Dickens or Twain never drew 
finer or funnier characters. Two belly laughs in every line. I hope 
it is my good fortune to play Captain Trolley. Your loving uncle 
—Bill Fields." 

201 



W. C. Fields 

"I'm going to play it, Gene," he told Fowler a couple of weeks 
later. "It'll make a wonderful picture." 

Following his instinct and his often-repeated vow, Fowler de- 
clined, with thanks, and tried to change the subject, but Fields 
persisted. 

"I finally got the impression that he really wanted the book," 
Fowler says, "and naturally I could use the money. So we ar- 
ranged a meeting." 

When they got together, at Fields' home, they settled a few 
details, and Fowler said, "Now about the money, Bill. I think we 
ought to work out a fair percentage split." 

Fields began to take on a vacant, faraway look; he muttered 
indistinctly about some new hollyhocks he had in the side yard. 
Then he arose and wandered away from the disturbing table. 
Since the meeting seemed unlikely to return to its announced 
topic, Fowler went home. 

A few days later Fields called up and said, "About that book 
of yours — the one you were trying to sell me for a movie." 

Fowler began an indignant protest, but Fields broke in. 

"The only way I work," he said emphatically, "is cash on the 
barrelhead!" 

"Why, you miserable old devil!" Fowler cried. "I don't give a 
damn whether you " 

"Cash on the barrelhead," yelled Fields, drowning him out. 
"Cash on the barrelhead." 

He hung up before he heard Fowler's next comment, which, all 
things considered, was probably just as well. 



202 



CHAPTER TWENTY 



B 



illy grady quit Fields, after representing him 
for fourteen years, because of a dispute involving Earl Carroll's 
Vanities. The comedian's early pictures on Long Island — Sally 
of the Sawdust, So's Your Old Man, Running Wild, and The Old 
Army Game, were artistically successful but made little money. 
He was starred in The Old Army Game, a Fieldsian kind of 
story about a sharpshooting fraud who lived principally by the 
shell game, and became well liked by movie-goers. To Fields, 
stardom meant big money, whether the box office flourished or 
not. He argued that he deserved at least as much as Rudolph 
Valentino and Wallace Reid were making, and probably more. 
Paramount, with some justification, contended that he should be 
paid in accordance with the popularity of his pictures. It was a 
hopeless deadlock ; while Fields was unable to wangle the fantastic 
sums he demanded, Paramount's combined lung power was in- 
sufficient to convert Fields. "As none of our hopes materialized 
during that period, I returned to the stage," he wrote Jim Tully 
later. Another time after that, helping a Paramount publicity 
man prepare a sketch of his life, he gave additional details, not 
altogether accurate, on his first film venture. "All my life," he 
said, "I had earned my living by entertaining people. I figured I 

203 



W. C. Fields 

had a vague idea what people liked, and what they would laugh 
at. I knew what I could do best, and what I couldn't do. 

"So when I signed my first contract to make pictures, the 
studio heads told me my worries were over. I could go out and 
play golf. Meanwhile, they had experts who would write comedy 
and funny lines, other experts who would figure out things for 
me to wear, and things for me to do. More experts would tell me 
how to do them. I could just loaf until they wanted me, and then 
I could come into the studio and follow instructions. 

"I did. And when my contract was up, it was not only not 
renewed, but nobody else would have me. So I went back to the 
stage." 

When he left the movies he instructed Grady to see what was 
doing, then withdrew into dignified but uneasy vigilance. 

"Bill never liked to talk to the other principal in a financial 
deal," Grady says. "He was so belligerent the negotiations always 
fell down that way, anyhow. His system was to keep somebody 
running back and forth with angry messages." 

Fields had been approached some months before by Carroll. 
On a golf course at Long Island, a boy had run out from the club- 
house to notify Fields that Carroll wanted him on the phone. 

"Tell him to go to hell!" said the comedian, and he chopped 
viciously at his ball, which was in a sand trap. 

"But he said he wanted you to appear in the Vanities!" ex- 
claimed the boy. 

"Tell him to take the Vanities and stick " (Fields offered 

here an improbable solution for disposing of the Vanities — one 
which Carroll, showman though he was, would doubtless have 
rejected even had it been feasible.) 

Nothing came of this exchange, but Grady and Carroll held 
a conference when Fields quit the movies. "He wants you pretty 
bad, Bill," Grady told his client after the conference. 

204 



"Oh, he does, does he?" snarled Fields, who was immediately 
put into a combative humor because Carroll thought well of him. 

"Yes," said Grady simply, having gone over this road several 
times before. 

"Well, he'll damn well pay for me," said Fields. He got a 
pencil and a piece of paper and figured out a list of penalties for 
Carroll's rash urge. 

"Tell him," he said at length, "that I'll work for $6500 a week, 
plus substantial bonuses and percentage clauses." 

Grady sat reflective a minute, then arose and said, "All right, 
I'll do it, but it's the most outrageous demand I've ever struck 
in all my years in show business." 

Eying him carefully, Fields lit a cigar. 

Grady called on Carroll, presented the surrender terms, and 
came back in about an hour. "Believe it or not," he reported, 
"Carroll said he would do it." 

"Said he would, did he?" Fields gritted savagely. 

"Don't ask me why." 

"Well, you trot right back and tell him I've changed my 
mind," said the comedian. "There's another condition — he'll 
have to drop his name off the marquee and make it read 'W. C. 
Fields in the Vanities/ " 

Grady left without comment. Somewhat later in the day he 
looked into Carroll's office and delivered the shift in terms. 
"Frankly," he added, "it's disgraceful behavior. If I were you, 
I'd tell him where to go." 

By an unlucky chance, Grady had underestimated the pro- 
ducer's compulsion to employ Fields. Shortly after the agent left 
his office, Carroll telephoned Fields, agreed to the new condition, 
and relayed Grady's conversation word for word. 

The meeting of Grady and Fields that evening was highly 
spirited. Among other things, the comedian said, "Your ten per 

205 



W. C. Fields 

cent's cut off during this run, and I hope we keep going till 
around the turn of the century." 

In what he believes now was a rather distinguished speech of 
severance, comparable to Washington's Farewell to his Troops, 
Grady ended one of the authentically polychromatic relationships 
of show business. His remarks were liberally sprinkled with four- 
letter nouns, for emphasis, and he recalls, at one point, duck- 
ing a shoe. When Fields began to see that his trusted (as it were) 
agent and companion was serious, he modified the punishment. 

"Never mind the 10 per cent, never mind," he said. "You 
won't miss it — I'll include you in my will." 

Grady explains that this system came to be a standard Fields 
panacea for evading financial obligations. With girls, he often 
waved generously when they began to eye the diamonds and furs, 
and said, "Don't bother your pretty head about material things, 
my dear — I'll see that you're taken care of in my will." He got 
to the point where he resolved anybody's questions about money 
by hinting of lavish bequests. Certainly his will at the time of his 
death proved to be a remarkable document, but it was hardly the 
cornucopia advertised by its creator. 

Fields' will began to run through his thoughts as King Charles' 
head got into Mr. Dick's Memorial, in David Copperfield. His 
allusions to it provided another of the great Fields paradoxes, for 
in a single breath he would proclaim his poverty and hint of vast 
riches for those who, by their single-minded devotion to the mas- 
ter, might be mentioned. It was a kind of treasure chart, with the 
promise of pots of gold at the end of the Fields rainbow. Once 
in a while, as he felt his power, he would make expansive declara- 
tions to his intimate friends. 

Grady, who remained a companion of Fields, though their 
professional ties were broken, once appeared in his will, and so 
did La Cava and Fowler. While walking in his Hollywood 

206 



grounds one day, Fields decided that the three men were among 
the princes of humanity; he was emotionally affected by their 
loyalty, their support, their comradely ways. He repaired to his 
study, summoned a young lawyer with whom he had struck a 
deal, providing that the man relieve Fields of certain legal re- 
sponsibilities for the sum of eight dollars per day (eight hours), 
and announced an important change in the will. "I want those 
boys to share in this thing," he told the lawyer. "There aren't 
three finer men in America." He then added hastily that the will 
was entirely speculative; the sums mentioned had not yet been 
made. "To tell you the truth," he said, "I haven't got a dime to 
my name." 

Notwithstanding, he and the lawyer altered the will to include 
substantial bequests to Grady, La Cava, and Fowler, all of whom 
were living close by and were lucratively employed by the movies. 

Some time afterward, when they all got together, Fields mov- 
ingly announced his charities; then he shook hands all around. 
The beneficiaries thanked him politely and changed the subject as 
fast as possible. In the weeks that followed, Fields referred with 
satisfaction to the bequests and got a lot of enjoyment out of his 
kindness. Then he finished a movie and sat around for two or 
three months, growing fidgety. All his old hallucinations were 
revived by his idleness. His face settled into suspicious lines; he 
began to receive intimations of a monster conspiracy. Presently 
he got in touch with a cheap detective agency and gave certain 
furtive, whispered instructions after a somewhat louder harangue 
about the pay. 

"He had us investigated," Fowler says. "He found out that, at 
the time, we were all making more than he was. He was furious, 
and called us on the telephone to bawl us out. He took the at- 
titude that we were plotting to defraud him." 

The beneficiaries told him substantially the same thing. 

207 



W . C. Fields 

"You ugly old skinflint, who wants in your will?" said La 
Cava. "Go along and don't bother me." 

"By the way," said Fowler, "I forgot to tell you that I'm 
thinking about including you in my will." 

Grady, who was then casting director for Metro-Goldwyn- 
Mayer, said that he was having a terribly busy morning and 
would have to switch him to a Mr. Tomkins, in charge of B 
musicals. "He may be able to get you a couple of days' extra work 
in January," Grady said. 

Fields lost no time in sending for his lawyer. Holding the clock 
on him, he was able to remove the odious bequests in a little less 
than half a day, bringing the fee, which Fields paid to the penny, 
to $3.94. 

"I got out of that thing very neatly," he later told his cook. 

In the Vanities, Fields' manner was assured, poised. Both his 
celebrity and his confidence had ripened. He did variations on his 
old routines, and, as in the Follies, appeared in several skits with 
other players. To his colleagues, by now, he seemed helpfully 
mellowed, even patriarchal, though he was considerably younger 
than many of them, including some of the juveniles. "It was a 
kind of aura that did it," a fellow actor has since said. "His 
occupancy of the number-one dressing room was carried out 
with a kingly flourish which may never again be seen on the 
American stage." His deportment was in the rococo style of 
Caruso at Milan, Bernhardt at the Comedie Francaise. The 
novice members of the cast tiptoed by his quarters, curtsied and 
saluted when they met him, and often applauded from the wings. 

Although many people, audience and actors alike, had all but 
forgotten that Carroll was mixed up in the Vanities, the come- 
dian's name having supplanted that of the producer in nearly all 
the important promotion, Fields was not inflexibly austere. He 
granted Carroll frequent interviews, permitted him a decent but 

2Q8 



not exceptional return on his investment, and allowed him to 
come and go unmolested backstage. 

It was in the Vanities that Fields acquired some reputation for 
being quick with the ad-libbed line. This was the beginning of a 
departure that was to become a monumental nuisance in Holly- 
wood. In the Follies and in the Scandals he had been largely con- 
tent to abide by the agreed-upon script, with such exceptions as 
his mistaking the Russian wolfhound for a camel in the golfing 
scene. But with the added luster of cinema stardom he felt an 
obligation to improvise. Thereafter, he said pretty much what he 
pleased. "A lot of it was funny, but a good deal was pure balder- 
dash," recalls a singer of the period. On occasion, Fields' nimble 
mind saved an embarrassing situation. During one of his scenes in 
the Vanities a backdrop collapsed somewhere offstage with an 
ear-splitting crash. Fields lifted his nose inquisitively and re- 
marked, "Mice." The audience howled, and the ad lib became 
the foundation for a whole new structure of jokes. 

Another time, onstage by himself, he leaned against a huge 
piece of scenery, which swayed limply, then fell forward with a 
dusty thwack at his feet. "They don't build these houses the way 
they used to," Fields roared, and the audience, convulsed, was 
sure that the incident had been contrived. 

Because he never appeared as a night-club comedian, or 
worked in similar places where the ad lib receives special pub- 
licity, Fields was slow in developing a name for fast thinking. But 
many people who knew him were long impressed with his wit. 
Mr. and Mrs. James Thurber were preparing to enter the Mo- 
cambo once in Hollywood when Fields came out with a dazzling 
blonde. The girl threw her arms around his neck and gave him a 
loud smack. 

"Is this a private party or can anybody get in on it?" Mrs. 
Thurber asked the comedian. 

"My lips are sealed, Mrs. T., my lips are sealed," he replied. 

209 



W. C. Fields 

Because of his lingering frustration about movies, Fields de- 
cided to move to Hollywood in 1931. He had no contract, but at 
fifty-one, he was a multiple success in the entertainment world, he 
had saved a great deal of money for a runaway who spent his 
young years sleeping in boxes and barrels, and he had limitless 
faith in his ability. Contrary to nearly all the published reports, 
Fields survived the crash of the stock market in good order. His 
survival was, in fact, assured, since he owned no stocks or bonds. 
There is even room for the belief that he welcomed the market's 
collapse with a certain selfish glee. In essence, he viewed it as an 
excellent method for making people think he was penniless. 
Always thereafter in interviews he took pains to mention the 
devastating sag in his fortune occasioned by the fiasco of 1929. 
"I was wiped out," he would say, and look bitter and gloomy. 

The most reliable private sources do agree, however, that 
Fields was subsequently nipped by the deceitful advice of a New 
York bank official. It is a shocking story, and unquestionably true. 
The banker came to Fields during the thickest pressure of the 
Wall Street break and said, "I'm going to let you in on some of 
our preferred stock — it's a giveaway at this price." Despite his 
prudence about investments, Fields had always an eye for a bar- 
gain, particularly if it carried a slight stigma of slyness, and he 
bought twenty-five thousand dollars' worth of the stock. At noon 
the next day, newspapers were ablaze with accounts of the bank's 
failure. The stock carried the clause for double jeopardy, as bank 
stock often did, and Fields was obliged to pay over an additional 
$25,000. His loss — $50,000 in a few days — did little to make him 
feel more trustful of bankers, brokers, or other financial advisers. 
He never speculated in any form again. 

Besides the heavy penalties for his incautious plunge, he lost an 
additional sum on deposit in the rump-sprung institution. But he 
had impressive accounts elsewhere, and he gathered many of 

210 



them up before he left for the Coast. Fields rolled out of New 
York in a new Lincoln, carrying, in his jacket pockets, three 
hundred and fifty thousand dollars in thousand-dollar bills. 
"What will you do if you get robbed, Mr. Fields?" a reporter 
asked him, and he replied, "What do the banks do?" His impli- 
cation, the man assumed, was that the banks would steal more, 
but this went unexplained in his story. 

After three decades of big-city theater, Fields was finished with 
the stage and with New York. He never went back. With the 
steely resolution that had enabled him to leave home at eleven 
and not return, he left the medium in which he had found 
security and headed for an opportunity of dubious worth. The 
years of his gaudiest triumphs, of his national notoriety, lay ahead, 
but he was starting, in advanced middle age, from professional 
scratch. It was a situation that pleased him; he was only happy 
when the barriers were exceptionally high. He had no ties, no 
home, no family that claimed his attention. A change of personal 
scene, for Fields, involved no more emotional risk than shifting 
the furniture of a stage. Nevertheless, as he crossed into New 
Jersey he felt already a faint breath of nostalgia. "When I got 
over the river," he told a friend later, "I twisted around for a last 
look at the skyline. I had an idea somehow that I wouldn't see it 
again. But I felt young, and I knew I was good, and it was a 
wonderfully sunny day. So I drove on toward a very uncertain 
future, about the same as I had in the past." 



211 



BOOK TWO: PART TWO 



CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE 



A 



fter a trip filled with pleasant dalliance, Tielda 
entered Hollywood in the shiniest possible condition. He had 
heard disturbing stories about the desert before he left New York, 
and his car was equipped with strong precautions against thirst. 
He found the desert oppressive, as announced, and he took no 
chances. Every few miles he stopped and, by tapping the refresh- 
ment section of his luggage, mixed a drink. On the outskirts of 
the movie capital he eased into a filling station and had his car 
washed. He had heard, he said later, that it was very important, 
on the West Coast, "to put on face." Toward the end of the desert, 
his worries on that score were reduced to a minimum, for what 
with the sun, and its antidote, he put on a good deal, with particu- 
lar reference to his nose, whose radiant sheen was matched only 
by that of his freshly scrubbed car. 

According to his subsequent accounts, he pulled up in front of 
the most gorgeous hotel he could find, climbed down, tossed his 
car keys to a uniformed lackey, whom he scrutinized carefully, in 
order to remember his face, and descended upon the lobby some- 
what in the manner of Caesar returning from Carthage. He made 
"quite a procession," as he described it afterward. Several bell- 
hops struggled along behind with his luggage, all of it pictur- 
es 



esque, including one valise which seemed to be leaking and others 
plastered with promotional labels on the order of "W. C. Fields, 
Greatest Juggler on Earth." He was wearing his cutaway and 
morning trousers, into which he had slipped in the lavatory of the 
filling station, and he was carrying a gold-headed cane. His step 
was jaunty; as he trod the flowered carpet he lifted a frayed and 
dented silk hat to various startled persons in the lobby, one of 
whom, an elderly lady in a wheel chair, sniffed suspiciously and 
broke into a rolling sprint for the side exit. 

At the desk, Fields rapped with his cane and asked for "the 
bridal suite." 

The manager, recoiling slightly, causing Fields to start and 
clutch his hat, informed him that the bridal suite was usually 
reserved for gentlemen with brides. 

"I'll pick up one in town," the comedian told him. 

After a lengthy nasal harangue, during which Fields spoke 
familiarly and even patronizingly of all the crowned heads of 
celluloid, he obtained a medium-sized room. His next move was 
to consult a local real estate dealer. He wanted a house, a pretty 
large house, he said, where he could relax without molestation 
after his daily grind at the studios. The house, a mansion at 
Toluca Lake, materialized shortly, but the daily grind at the 
studios held off for eighteen months. 

In that period — one of the most anxious of his life — Fields tried 
every device he could hit upon to get back into the movies. For 
the first time in years he humbled himself completely. "I even 
went to one studio," he said, "and made them a proposition. I 
offered to write, star in, and direct a two-reel short for no money 
whatsoever. If the comedy got over, the studio was to give me a 
contract. They turned me down cold." 

The word had gone around Hollywood that Fields' pictures, 
though funny, were not money-makers, and the men who made 

213 



W. C. Fields 

the decisions, while artistic and cultured to a fault, preferred to 
play it safe with Gable and Nelson Eddy. In the tycoons' defense, 
it must be said that Fields' reputation for truculence, unmatched 
in entertainment history, except possibly by John Wilkes Booth, 
was an effective danger signal. There were two or three studio 
officials, small men, who were frightened of him physically. "He 
beat Ed Wynn over the head with a billiard cue," one of them 
told an awed group in a Beverly Hills restaurant. 

During this period of his travail, Fields occupied himself in 
playing golf, getting acquainted, talking loudly against the movie 
people, and running his large establishment. His old friends Le 
Baron and La Cava were in Hollywood, Le Baron now working 
for RKO and La Cava directing at Paramount; Fields saw a 
good deal of them, of Grady, who was with Metro-Goldwyn- 
Mayer, and of Gene Fowler and Mack Sennett. Once or twice a 
week he drove down to Dave Chasen's restaurant and, at a table 
always reserved for him on those nights, bragged spaciously about 
the movie offers he was rejecting. He and Sennett played golf at 
the Lakeside course ; every time they played, Fields would say at 
some point, "You know, Mack, I ought to be working at that 
studio of yours." Sennett, who had been considering this pos- 
sibility for some while, usually nodded thoughtfully. One day he 
replied, "That's not a bad idea, Bill." 

"I'll do anything," Fields said, "write, produce, direct, any- 
thing." 

Sennett thought it curious that Fields had failed to mention 
acting, but he said, "Why don't you drop out some day next week, 
Bill? We'll talk it over." 

Fields shook his hand warmly, crying, "Why, that's wonderful, 
Mack. As I said, I'll do anything. I don't care about the money — 
I just want to get back to work." 

On Wednesday of the following week, the comedian, in his 

214 



immaculate Lincoln, pulled up at Sennett's Keystone Studios. He 
was carefully groomed, carrying his cane, and "seemed," Sennett 
says, "to have regained all his old pomp." He was crackling with 
authority as he warped around several outbuildings and into 
Sennett's office. He didn't bother to remove his hat. "I had the 
impression that he could only stay a minute," Sennett remembers. 

They held a conference, which Fields dominated. 

"You'll act, of course," said Sennett at one point, and Fields, 
giving him a keen look, replied, "I hadn't counted on it — act?" 
and he mused for a moment, a little troubled in his mind. 

"Well, if I act," he said finally, "we'd better have a talk about 
the money." 

His ensuing behavior was singular for a man whose principal 
motive was getting back to work. "Right off, he demanded $5000 
a week," says Sennett, "and he asked several questions about my 
solvency. Then he said he would prefer to write his own contract. 
I had an idea that Bill and I could make some successful come- 
dies, so I told him to go ahead." 

Two days later Fields returned with a document that is be- 
lieved to have been without parallel in show business. He had 
stuck to his guns about the $5000, Sennett noted with relief, but 
he had added a number of clauses that broke new ground with 
contracts of that kind. Chief among them was the intelligence 
that, of his weekly $5000, he must be paid $2500 on Monday 
morning and the other $2500 on Wednesday. 

"I inspected the papers," says Sennett, "and said, Tt looks like 
a first-rate piece of work, Bill.' " 

"It will hold water," said Fields mysteriously. 

They signed the historic articles and prepared for production. 
And now began a series of arguments that occupied a good por- 
tion of each working day as long as the two were together. It was 
the old trouble about who knew what was funny. To keep the ball 

215 



W. C. Fields 

rolling, Sennett fixed on a system whereby he might retain a 
slight hand in his studio's management and keep Fields propiti- 
ated besides. "It was very simple," he says. "All I had to do was 
make Bill feel that he thought of everything, and he co-operated 
perfectly." 

Sennett would develop a gag, mention it to Fields, hear it 
damned and blasted, and drop it meekly for about a week. Then 
he would say, "You know, Bill, I've been thinking over that busi- 
ness of yours about the washtub and the goat, and I believe it 
would work out fine." 

"I thought you'd see the light on that one," Fields would reply, 
and add, "I did it in the Follies." 

He had a stock answer any time he was pushed. "I'm afraid 
that's for some other boy," he'd say, then he would pick up a 
newspaper and retire to a rocker he kept in his dressing room. 

Despite the arguments, Sennett and his new comedian re- 
mained friendly and turned out a string of brilliant comedies. 
Fields liked the atmosphere of informal gaiety around the Key- 
stone Studios, which were unique in Hollywood. Sennett, amused 
by the formidable bastions surrounding the major lots, had no 
fences, no walls, no watchmen, no barriers of any kind to keep 
out the public. He even did without the vital Hollywood secre- 
tary, whose principal function, as she did sentry-go in the outer 
office, was to provide a spurious air of jammed-up importance 
while her mentor, huddled inside, nervously studied his option 
and swilled Bromo-Seltzer. People wishing to observe a Keystone 
comedy in the making could wander in and out at their leisure ; if 
by inadvertence they got in front of the camera, Sennett seldom 
bothered to reshoot. "Most everybody's funny, one way or an- 
other," he told a writer. 

Fields also approved the absence of prohibitive signs on the 
Keystone walls. The big studios were, and are, generously dec- 

216 



orated with semi-hysterical warnings such as "Quiet!" "Not 
Responsible for Stolen Overcoats" "No Spitting on Thursdays" 
and "Watch Out!" Sennett took a line, much appreciated by his 
employees, that clear-headed adults could pretty well be trusted 
not to destroy their livelihood, and he suspected further that in 
the case of most Americans, signs only remind them of potential 
pleasures and are in general an incitement to mischief. 

In the course of their harangues, Sennett and Fields used to tick 
off their triumphs, to build sound cases. They spent hours discuss- 
ing theories of comic technique, getting nowhere. "I might re- 
mind you," Fields would say, "that in addition to being the 
biggest name in international vaudeville, I have starred in the 
Follies, the Scandals, the Vanities, and in musical plays." As 
rebuttal, Sennett would mention, with diffidence, that he had 
discovered and started both Bing Crosby and Charlie Chaplin 
in movies — Crosby when he was singing, after his Whiteman 
period, at the Ambassador Theatre in Los Angeles, and Chaplin 
when he was an obscure performer in vaudeville. "You'll forgive 
me for adding," he'd say, "that Frank Capra and Leo McCarey, 
the comedy directors, both broke in with me. You've heard of the 
Keystone cops? Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, Ben Turpin?" 

At about this point in the dialogue, Fields would disgust Sen- 
nett by saying, "You don't know anything about comedy, you 
dumb Irishman. You'd never have got to first base if you hadn't 
dressed up a bunch of big-busted floosies in tights and called 
them bathing beauties." 

The injustice of these remarks made Sennett stamp with anger. 
The aggressively moral tone of his establishment was a byword 
in movie circles. He was so sensitive on the subject that he had 
his bathing beauties guarded by police matrons, as a boarding 
school is governed by its heads. "Why, damn you," he'd yell at 

2IJ 



W. C. Fields 

Fields, "I invite those girls' mothers to come down to the lot 
almost every day!" 

"Floosies," Fields would mutter, hoping to bring on some sort 
of cardiac disturbance. 

"I made four [the number was actually seven] comedies for 
the Irishman," he once wrote for a newspaper, "and had forty 
more or less friendly fights. Neither of us could agree on the 
nature of comedy. One of the comedies paid for itself three days 
after release." 

Sennett was interested in Fields' early life, and Fields was 
amused by Sennett's. The fact that the producer, whose father 
was a Northhampton (Massachusetts) contractor, had got into 
films by studying to be an opera singer seemed of telltale signif- 
icance to Fields, who spoke with sarcastic relish of the humor he'd 
seen on the operatic stage. The producer would urge that the sin 
of his near-musical career had been expiated by the novelty of his 
switch to the screen. One day in a restaurant near Carnegie Hall, 
young Sennett had chanced to ask a successful baritone how much 
he was making, and when the man, with some gloom, replied, 
"Seventy-five a week, clear," the boy's faith in the melodic plot 
was shaken. He obtained work as a three-dollar-a-day extra at the 
Biograph Studio on Fourteenth Street, soon gravitating to the 
funny movies — a wrenching ordeal, since practically everything 
they were doing struck him as funny. In a month he changed over 
to assistant director and received a salary boost to $80 a week, 
which went immediately to his head. He began to heave petty 
cash around like the Aga Khan. He bought a checkered vest 
and took to playing the ponies. For a beginner, his luck was 
remarkably steady — he never won a dime — and before long he 
found himself in hock for a hundred dollars to a group of sinewy 
gamblers. For weeks his life consisted of trying to duck them on 
the streets. 

218 



Eventually, by hiding in a doorway, they trapped him, and as 
he slunk furtively by they pranced out, in the manner of cinema 
gangsters, and cried "Ha!" 

"Oh, good afternoon, fellows," said Sennett, paling. "Well, 
I've got to be going." 

"O.K., squirt," replied one of them, digging in his hip pocket 
for what turned out to be a handkerchief. "How about that C- 
note?" (In later years Sennett was not positive about the exact 
phrase — it may have been "Yard" or "Century".) 

"Say, fellows," he said, brightening up, "I've got a wonderful 
idea how you might get back that hundred — I've been thinking 
about it a lot." 

"Spill it, punk," said one of them. 

"Well," Sennett went on, "the way I got it figured, you give 
me $2500 to start a studio with and you'll get back your money 
just as soon as the profits start coming in. Among the very first 
receipts." 

The gamblers gave him the $2500, and the Keystone Studios 
were in business. 

"You still don't know anything about comedy," Fields would 
observe after the above recital. 

Sennett insisted that slapstick, to be artistically funny, must be 
carefully prepared for. "It has a cause- and-effect motivation," he 
would tell Fields. "You can't just spring it unexpectedly, it has to 
be built up." 

Fields: "Pfffffft." 

" — on a rising tide of laughter you can make something absurd 
at the climax seem excusable. Introduce it at the beginning and 
it will seem awful and embarrassing. You can take tremendous 
liberties with it only if you built it up. Right?" 

"I think I'll work my golf act into this two-reeler about the 
dentist," Fields would agree. 

219 



W. C. Fields 

Sennett would pick up a property poker and eye him wistfully. 

One of the comedies they made was called The Chemist, a title 
Sennett clinched after a bloody engagement touched off by 
Fields' insistence on calling it, simply, W. C. Fields in a Drugstore. 
After the smoke had cleared away from the title fight, they com- 
bined their genius and produced a work for which the comedian, 
in particular, is fondly remembered by the Fields cult. 

Wearing a depressing white jacket, he appeared as the baffled 
but helpful proprietor of a small, shabby drugstore. As he stepped 
around his shop, carrying a feather duster and whisking grace- 
fully at things like dollar alarm clocks, hot-water bottles, trusses 
and bonbons, various customers arrived. The first man said he 
was "just looking." Fields, behind the counter, kept pace with 
him, pointing out some of the more attractive offerings, ranging 
from dandruff cure to corn plasters, and finally pulled out a per- 
forming monkey on a stick. 

"Amusing little beggar?" he said, with a false, ingratiating 
laugh, and the man went to the rear of the store, used the tele- 
phone, and left. 

The next prospect, a woman of affluence, opened an expensive 
purse, and Fields rubbed his hands eagerly. She wanted a stamp. 

"Just one?" he inquired, smiling his comradely smile, and she 
said, "One will be plenty." He removed a sheet of stamps about 
two feet square and prepared to pinch one off the upper right- 
hand corner. 

"Could I have the one in the middle, please?" she asked. 

"Of course, of course," he cried, with an understanding laugh, 
and he spent several minutes removing the stamp that appeared to 
be in the dead center. She handed over two cents and went out, 
to brave, happy cries of "Come in and see us again, won't you?" 

Fields' next customer, also a woman, approached with a painful 
show of timidity. She simpered and stood on one foot after the 

220 



the other. It was plain that her purchase was involved with some 
intimate requirement of her sex, and the proprietor looked tact- 
fully professional. 

She looked up at last and said, "Do you have a female attend- 
ant?" 

"Why, yes," he replied. "I'll call her right away." He hurried 
up a flight of stairs in the back, summoned his wife, who was busy 
with her housework, and hurried back. "She'll be down in half a 
mo," he assured the flustered caller, and resumed his dusting — 
humming, examining his merchandise, often with galvanic starts 
of surprise, and throwing the woman little darting looks, winks, 
and smiles. 

His wife went through an elaborate program of removing her 
domestic garb, replaced it with a starched uniform, and came 
downstairs. The customer tiptoed up and whispered in her ear, 
then, upon receiving some advice in an undertone, withdrew to 
the rear and used the ladies' room. 

From beginning to end, the sketch was a study in frustration, 
of the general sort that Fields felt qualified, by long experience, 
to demonstrate with expert feeling. 

"When we finished it," says Sennett, "I had the notion that 
he had settled several old scores known only to himself." 

With Sennett, Fields also resolved mysterious grievances against 
barbers and dentists and others of the legions that plagued him. 
Perhaps the best known of the two-reelers they made was The 
Fatal Glass of Beer. The comedian was in top form; he had his 
way about many details of the plot, which was uniquely meager. 
In general, it consisted of Fields sitting on a campstool in a far 
Northern shack, dressed in a coonskin coat, a fur cap and mittens, 
and singing a tuneless song about his unlikely downfall, while 
accompanying himself on a zither. Periodically he would arise, 
walk to the door, fling it open, and cry, "It ain't a fit night out for 

221 



W. C. Fields 

man or beast!" upon which an invisible extra would pelt him in 
the face with a double handful of snow. He varied this shrewd 
observation on the weather with miscellaneous declarations of 
policy. "The time has come," he said at one point, "to take the 
bull by the tail and face the situation." It was a noble and up- 
lifting study of Northern life, and while it didn't settle anything, 
it was uproariously funny. His meteorological note, though not 
exactly original, caught on and swept over the land. It was a 
popular mot of the impoverished thirties and is still a lively part 
of the language. 

Chester Conklin, then a Keystone cop and featured comedian, 
and who still plays occasional comedy parts for Paramount, re- 
calls Fields' predilection for wearing the clip-in mustache. They 
appeared in one film together. "We were on the set one day," he 
says, "and they brought Mae Worth out — she was one of the 
great bareback riders of that time, with Ringling Brothers. The 
publicity boys wanted some pictures of the three of us. Bill refused 
to take off his mustache, and I remember Miss Worth looking at 
it with dismay. He'd had a few during the morning and was en- 
joying life. He kept telling her the mustache was real. 'All the men 
in my family were bearded,' he said, 'and most of the women.' 
Then he went into details about an aunt of his — she had some 
impossible name he'd made up, I disremember what it was — who 
had a red beard down to her waist. 'She wore it tucked into her 
vest,' he told Miss Worth. Later on, between stills, I heard him 
explaining that he'd got his red nose by bruising it on a cocktail 
glass in his extreme youth. I think she was a little shocked." 

In posing for the pictures, Fields cut up so energetically that 
Miss Worth never got quite into them. One of the clearest shows 
Fields, again wearing his cutaway and silk hat, and with the 
mustache clipped in, holding Conklin in a fierce travesty of an 
acrobatic stance. Miss Worth nearly made it ; about three quarters 

222 



of her right arm is on view, pushing against Fields' elbow and 
holding a black handbag. 

Conklin, a St. Louis baker who got sick of making pies and 
became a comedian, after which he had pies thrown at him daily 
for years, believes that Fields always wanted to steal a gag from 
him. "Ches," Fields would say, "I've been thinking about that 
skit of yours with the taxi meter. I may switch it around a little 
and use it." 

"How do you plan to switch it, Bill?" Conklin would ask, and 
the reply was always, "Only slightly, Ches, only slightly." 

"He was just sounding me out," Conklin says. "Bill was a 
wonderful comedian — he never stopped gathering material." 

Conklin now remembers his taxi-meter gag chiefly as an illus- 
tration of how easy it is to get typed in pictures. As a taxi driver, 
he was taking a fare on a longish haul, overland, and got caught 
in an overflowing river. The cab, with the easy extravagance of 
those days, submerged for quite a space and Conklin, without the 
cab but carrying the meter, finally walked out on the opposite 
bank. His agitated efforts to locate his fare, as the meter continued 
to tick, met with amused approval by movie audiences every- 
where. From then on into middle age he was cast predominately 
as a taxi driver, whether the part was funny or not. 

Fields enjoyed loafing around the sets where the Keystone cops 
were at work ; his attempts to loaf near the bathing beauties were 
discouraged by the police matron. He was interested in the fact 
that Conklin often feigned cross eyes, for comedy purposes, and 
that Ben Turpin's eyes actually were crossed. The abnormality 
struck him as an intriguing comic device. To help directors handle 
Turpin, whose high spirits sometimes made him intractable 
( actually, he saw eye to eye with very few directors ) , Fields sug- 
gested a simple but effective device. Turpin, an ardent Catholic, 
depended on his angular vision for his livelihood, and when he 

223 



W. C. Fields 

cut up, a director would say (thanks to Fields) , "Ben, if you don't 
behave yourself, I'm going to pray to St. Joseph to straighten out 
your eyes." Terrified, Turpin would play the scene with pious 
obedience. 

Excitement appeared to follow Fields around the sets. In one 
scene he was supposed to sprint across a courtyard a couple of 
jumps ahead of some lions. Sennett had contracted with an animal 
man for the use of three elderly, toothless lions, but when the 
beasts arrived they appeared to be in very frolicsome condition; 
and large, strong teeth, or dentures, formed a memorable part 
of their features. Fields, of course, demurred at what he regarded 
as certain suicide in one of its most disagreeable forms, and the 
action was halted while they hashed things out. 

"It's only a short run, Bill," said Sennett, "and you'll hop 
through this door on the right while the lions take the one on 
the left. Even if they should turn ugly, they can't possibly get 
you." 

"They aren't friendly," said Fields. "Those aren't friendly 
lions. I can tell. They've been starved down and they'll eat any- 
thing." 

By some means that Sennett has forgotten, he was persuaded 
to make the dash. As soon as he entered the courtyard, at a clip 
which provoked admiration from men half his age, the trainer 
shoved the lions forward and gave them a boosting kick. They 
took out after Fields as if he were the last remaining game at the 
old water hole. Looking around, he read what he interpreted as 
intimations of dinner in their faces and stepped up his tempo. 
But when he neared his exit, he heard an anguished yell from 
behind it, "Who the hell locked this door?" The comedian gave 
voice to a bloodcurdling cry and charged through the locked door 
with a splintering crash. The lions, crestfallen and mumbling, 

224 



brought up at the wreckage, then went through tneir own door, 
as planned. 

Some time later, Fields was supposed to ride a bicycle gently into 
the rear end of a backing truck and fall down. Both he and the 
truck were going too fast; they collided sharply and Fields fell 
with great force to the ground. Bystanders noticed that his head 
was tilted at a grotesque angle. After the impact, the truck con- 
tinued to roll and Johnny Sinclair, then a stunt man and now a 
comedy writer, leaped underneath and snatched the comedian 
out just before the back wheels reached him. Holding his head in 
his hands, Fields was hurried into a car and rushed to a hospital. 
The doctors made a quick diagnosis — he had a broken neck. 

"How long have I got?" he asked an examining surgeon. 

"If you co-operate, many years, I expect," replied the surgeon, 
"It's only a single vertebra." 

The surgeon and the whole hospital soon had occasion to regret 
his casual advice, for Fields, viewing the injury as trivial, refused 
to co-operate in any way whatever. He removed the brace from 
his neck. Whenever a nurse tried to refit it, he would wave her 
away, crying, "Never mind — it's only a flesh wound." He moved 
his head about with perfect freedom, though it clicked audibly, 
and he had a bar set up in his room. The hospital staff were dis- 
traught; their attempts to reason with the patient resulted only 
in disconnected narratives about other, more horrible injuries he 
had suffered and fixed with something he identified as "Doctor 
Buckhalter's Kidney Reviver." Within a week or so, Fields took 
to walking the corridors, something not generally done with a 
broken neck. When the hospital people spotted him, they got him 
into a wheel chair, almost by main strength. But it was energy 
wasted. Toward the close of the very next day, after several 
visitors had arrived bringing martinis, he wheeled his chair into 

225 



W. C. Fields 

the hall and down a long flight of stairs. When they found him 
and checked up, it was discovered that he had also broken his 
coccyx. 

"Damnation," he kept crying afterward, "I came into this in- 
stitution broken at one end and now I'm broken at both." 

The hospital employees, from the chief of staff down to the last 
bedpan carrier, were much relieved when he went home. 

Though Fields and Sennett scrapped on the set, they saw a 
lot of each other socially. Fields would invite Sennett to Toluca 
Lake to dine on Virginia ham, to which the producer was partial, 
and Sennett would coax Fields out on his yacht. The comedian 
disliked boats intensely, despite the many voyages he made during 
his vaudeville years. On any but the blandest days he became 
violently seasick, and he took it personally. One time when there 
had been no suggestion of a breeze for more than a week, Sennett 
persuaded him to ride out to Catalina, a haul that, for rough 
water, compares favorably with the English Channel. Before 
boarding the yacht, Fields tested the air repeatedly with a moist- 
ened finger : a dead calm prevailed. The meaning of the calm was 
resolved about six miles from shore, where one of the briskest 
squalls for months swooped down and caught them. The yacht 
was tossed about like a bubble, and Fields' anguished howls, as 
he lay strapped to a bunk, were easily the most positive of the 
storm noises. 

Through what Sennett believes was exceptional seamanship, the 
yacht reached the island, and Fields debarked without speaking 
to anybody. After some difficulty, the anxious host found him 
registered at a small hotel. 

"Well, what do you say we go back, Bill?" said Sennett. 

"I'm staying here," replied Fields. 

"Why, the sea's almost flat again." 

Fields said, "I'll be here in the hotel until it's entirely flat.' 5 

226 



"It'll never get that way," said Sennett. "The Pacific always 
has a little swell, you know." 

"Then I'll settle here," said the comedian. "I'll buy a house." 
Sennett had several comedies in the works and needed to get 
back, but for three days he was obliged to transact his business 
by telephone, while his passenger remained steadfast. For the most 
part Fields stuck close to the hotel, only coming out now and then 
to walk down to the shore and view the water wrathfully. The 
ocean finally looked glassy for a couple of hours, and he con- 
sented to return, but he complained all the way back. 



227 



CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO 



T 



.he anomalies of Fields' character were a study to 
Mack Sennett, as they were to his other friends. Despite all his 
bluster, he was hypersensitive, and hated to hurt anybody's feel- 
ings. He disliked refusing people things; if possible, he did it 
through a third person. 

One evening Sennett motored to Fields' Toluca Lake resi- 
dence, where he hoped to discuss some comedy ideas. The 
comedian's servants, acting mysterious and secretive, said he had 
gone out. "He's taking a long trip," added one of them. "He may 
not be back until next year." 

Thoroughly confused, Sennett retreated toward his car, but on 
the way he heard a rustling in some bushes and stepped over to 
investigate. He found Fields crouching low in a clump of azaleas. 

"What the devil are you doing in there?" cried the producer. 

"Shhhhh!" cautioned Fields. "Get your voice down." 

"You sick?" said Sennett. "What's the matter with you, Bill?" 

"Not so loud," said Fields. "I just got word that Earl Carroll 
was sending his brother up here to try and borrow $8000 to start a 
restaurant with." 

"Well, why don't you just say no?" was Sennett's logical in- 
quiry. 

228 



Fields replied that he'd rather "wait it out." 

"I'll duck him," he said. "You'll see." 

Half persuaded to call a psychiatrist, Sennett left, to Fields' 
hoarse entreaties of "Tiptoe! Tiptoe!" and put the matter out of 
his mind. The next day about noon the comedian appeared at 
the studio wearing dark glasses and a beard so patently false that 
he would have been arrested on suspicion by any alert policeman. 

"How's it going?" asked Sennett, recalling the bushes and the 
loan. 

"I've got him," said Fields. "I rolled right by him near Sepul- 
veda and Sunset. He didn't know me from Adam." 

Sennett wanted to know how long the masquerade was likely 
to continue, and Fields said, "Till the bastard gives up." 

"He was obviously having a very fine time," says Sennett. 
"Later on I heard that Carroll finally caught him at home but 
that Bill got in bed and sent word down that he was 'just begin- 
ning a long illness.' " 

Fields' separation from the Keystone Studios was accomplished 
only after the most elaborate and indirect preliminaries. In his 
two years with Sennett he had achieved an important transition 
in his popular reputation. Instead of being a funny actor in a 
funny movie, he had become an individual, an institution unto 
himself. Whereas a fan of his earlier movie period would have 
said, "Did you see So's Your Old Man with that fellow Fields?" 
he might now say, "Did you see W. G. Fields' latest comedy?" 
The former juggler was being talked about, and the big studios 
began to listen. 

"I could feel a slight chill coming into the air," says Sennett, 
"and I realized he'd had a better offer. But knowing Bill, I didn't 
imagine he could come right out with it, so I just sat back and 
watched." 

Fields' manner shifted. Nothing quite suited him; he was able 

229 



W. C. Fields 

to find fault with nearly everything on the set — the script, the 
dressing accommodations, the brashness of the employees ( includ- 
ing Sennett), and even the geographical location of the studio. 
He acquired a heavy martyrdom, a peevish melancholy that sug- 
gested the follies of sacrificing his colossal gifts on the altar of 
Keystone insufficiency. 

Sennett, enjoying himself, let him sulk for a while, then he 
said, "Bill, I've been thinking over that contract of ours. I'm not 
going to hold you to it. We're just a small outfit, and I don't want 
to stand in the way of progress. You've outgrown us." 

Fields looked both shocked and distressed, but his spirit perked 
right up. He finished the current two-reeler with cheery dispatch, 
then bought an enormous ham and invited Sennett to dinner. 
They continued friends. 

For Paramount, which had made him the better offer, he now 
began the string of pictures that was to build him into a national 
phenomenon. The studio itself thinks that Fields "started on the 
backtrack in a picture called // / Had a Million, which dealt 
with what ten different people did when they suddenly inherited 
a million dollars." Paramount's publicity department still speaks 
lovingly of the "roadhog sequence" in that film. By his next one — 
International House, with Peggy Hopkins Joyce — he was firmly 
established in command. Eddie Sutherland directed him. They 
had innumerable quarrels, chiefly over ideas of Fields that went 
far astray from the plot. International House had a sort of plot, 
about intrigue in China, but it was filled, in addition, with Fields' 
observations on life. At one point he and Sutherland and Rudy 
Vallee, who was also in the cast, had a warm wrangle over a 
commentary Fields had worked out on crooners. 

It was Vallee's thought, and a viewpoint not difficult to un- 
derstand, that no commentary on crooners was necessary. Suth- 
erland agreed, with genuine fervor. But Fields was immovable, 

230 



and the director persuaded Vallee that the scene was harmless. 

"I wasn't really convinced myself," says Sutherland, "but we 
had to get on with the picture." 

So, granted a free hand, Fields walked into a room where a 
television set was turned on, saw Vallee singing on the screen, 
and without hesitation pulled out a revolver and shot him, the 
crooner falling dead instantly. It was the first television joke of 
a kind that is still going strong. 

All his life Fields saw depths of humor in the Chinese that many 
others missed; he was pleased that International House had a 
Chinese locale. It was his custom, in the Hollywood days, to ad- 
dress one of his girl friends as "the Chinaman" and to clothe her 
in a Chinese costume. She still views his motives as obscure, but 
the sight of her padding along in satin slippers and a split black 
skirt awoke in him some immensely satisfying inner hilarity. He 
romped through the Chinese sets of International House as though 
he were involved in an authentic Cook's tour of the country. In an 
elaborate Shanghai restaurant, occidental in tone, he studied the 
menu at a dinner party and told the waiter, with traveled famili- 
arity, that he'd have "a bird's nest and a couple of hundred-year- 
old eggs boiled in perfume." The waiter nodded, as if he had 
made a wise choice, and duly noted the order on his pad. In this 
movie, fired upon by ruffians, Fields leaned out of a window and 
delivered a sarcasm that became, for a few years, a popular blan- 
ket denunciation. 

"Can't hit a moving target, hey?" he said; then, outside the 
house and beleaguered by enemies approaching from opposite 
directions, he spread the barrels of a double-barreled shotgun and 
felled them with a single, epic blast. 

On the strength of International House, which appeared in 
1932, Paramount signed him to a long-term contract, but his 
signature was obtained only after vexatious snags had developed. 

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W. C. Fields 

For the last parliamentary session, Fields appeared with a heavy 
list of hand-drawn objections. He would refuse to sign a contract, 
he said, unless he were given carte blanche in the preparation, 
direction, and production of his movies. As before with Para- 
mount, his negotiations seemed to have reached an impasse ; how- 
ever, after hours of argument and recrimination, from which he 
withdrew frequently to meditate and refuel, a compromise was 
reached. He was to be given immense liberties in the presentation 
of his work, though he was not yet in complete charge of the 
studio. 

Fields' friend and former employer, William Le Baron, had 
now returned to Paramount from RKO and Fields, because of 
the company's natural reluctance to decentralize its powers, for- 
ever afterward referred to him as "Santa Claus with a stiletto." 
The comedian was able to work for Le Baron, though, as he 
worked for nobody previously or later, and he turned out a series 
of films which contain some of the most worth while of America's 
humor. Altogether, Fields made, for Paramount, counting his 
movies on Long Island, Sally of the Sawdust, So's Your Old 
Man, The Old Army Game, That Royal Girl, The Potters, 
Running Wild, Two Flaming Youths, Tillie and Gus, Fools for 
Luck, Her Majesty, Love, Million-Dollar Legs, If I Had a Million, 
International House, Six of a Kind, You're Telling Me, The Old- 
Fashioned Way, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, It's a Gift, 
Mississippi, and Man on the Flying Trapeze. 

His roles were widely different, but his demeanor — revolving 
around the pricked balloon of pomposity — became part of the 
national scene. His nasal mutter was imitated by laymen, his 
favorite endearments, such as "My dove," "My little chickadee," 
and "My glowworm," which first appeared in // / Had a Million 
(being addressed to the un-dove-like Alison Skipworth), were 
repeated ad nauseum, and his mannerisms and snouty appear- 

232 



ance were burlesqued by many a mime of the vaudeville stage. 

Fields' favorite exclamations — "Godfrey Daniel," "Mother of 
Pearl," "Drat!" and others — always had a peculiar standing at 
the Hays office. Just as many comedians have been able, on the 
legitimate stage, to utter the fiercest oaths and make them sound 
innocent, Fields could voice tea-party pleasantries and make them 
sound profane. An audience, seeing the wicked leer and sensing 
the unfathomable mischief behind his frosty, belligerent stare, 
realized that, whatever he might say, he meant considerable more, 
so that "Godfrey Daniel" always came out "Goddamn," not only 
to the Hays office but to the general public. In spite of this, the 
essential fraudulence of his established character removed the 
sting from all hints of the grossest immorality. 

The censors were obliged to keep an especially alert eye on 
Fields' educational efforts for children, both in the script and on 
the set. There can be no question that Fields disliked children, 
in a persecuted, un-angry sort of way. His encounters with the 
infant thespian, Baby LeRoy, with whom he played in several 
films, were well known to Hollywood. He considered that the 
child was deliberately trying to wreck his career, and he stalked 
him remorselessly. "When he stole entire scenes from Baby LeRoy 
in Tillie and Gus a year and a half ago, his greatness was acknowl- 
edged," a reporter said of Fields in 1935. The comedian realized 
that, whatever else might be going on in a scene, people would 
watch the antics of a baby. His competitive treatment of LeRoy 
was, therefore, exactly the same as he would have accorded an 
adult. Between takes he sat in a corner, eyed the child, and mut- 
tered vague, injured threats. 

In one Fields-LeRoy picture directed by Norman Taurog, 
action was suspended so that the infant could have his orange 
juice. When the others busied themselves with scripts, Fields ap- 
proached the child's nurse and said, "Why don't you take a 

233 



W. C. Fields 

breather? I'll give the little nipper his juice." She nodded grate- 
fully, and left the set. 

With a solicitous nursery air, Fields shook the bottle and re- 
moved its nipple, then he drew a flask from his pocket and 
strengthened the citrus with a generous noggin of gin. 

Baby LeRoy, a popular, warm-hearted youngster, showed his 
appreciation by gulping down the dynamite with a minimum of 
the caterwauling that distinguishes the orange-juice hour in so 
many homes. But when the shooting was ready to recommence, 
he was in a state of inoperative bliss. 

Taurog and others, including the returned nurse, inspected 
the tot with real concern. "I don't believe he's just sleepy," said 
the nurse. "He had a good night's rest." 

"Jiggle him some more," suggested Taurog. "We're running a 
little behind schedule." 

Several assistants broke into cries of "Hold it!" "Stand by with 
Number Seven!" and "Make-up — LeRoy's lost his color!" 

"Walk him around, walk him around," was Fields' hoarse and 
baffling comment from a secluded corner. 

The child was more or less restored to consciousness, but in the 
scene that followed, Taurog complained of his lack of animation. 
Despite the most urgent measures to revive him he remained 
glassy-eyed and in a partial coma. For some inexplicable reason 
Fields seemed jubilant. 

"He's no trouper," he kept yelling. "The kid's no trouper. Send 
him home." 

Several years later, when Baby LeRoy was grown to boyhood, 
Fields heard that he was re-entering films. "The kid's no trouper," 
the comedian told several people. "He'll never make a comeback." 
LeRoy did come back, however, and continued to perform suc- 
cessfully. 

Fields always thought that one of the most agreeable events 

234 



in his movie career took place in The Old-Fashioned Way, during 
a scene with the troublesome LeRoy. In the course of a boarding- 
house meal, the infant dropped Fields' watch in the molasses, 
turned over his soup, and hit him in the face with a spoonful of 
cream. After dinner, by chance, Fields found himself in a room 
alone with his tormentor, who was in the all-fours stance on the 
carpet. Tiptoeing up softly, his face filled with benevolence, he 
took a full leg swing and kicked the happy youngster about six 
feet. The comedian threw himself into this scene, as he tried to do 
with all his pictures, and wrapped up some splendid footage for 
Paramount. 

But his conscience must have bothered him, for the next day 
he appeared on the set with presents for Baby LeRoy. It taxes 
the historian's ingenuity to explain the many paradoxes of Fields. 
While he was authentically jealous of the child, he made sheepish 
and comradely gestures on the sly. One time when Baby LeRoy's 
option was due, Fields needlessly wrote a part for him into one 
of his pictures, to emphasize the child's importance to the studio. 
In his home the comedian once had a photograph, prominently 
displayed, of himself and the child star riding kiddie cars. And 
yet, asked in interviews how he liked children, or child actors, 
he always replied with a sincere growl, "Fried," or "Parboiled," 
or something equally unaffectionate. 

In The Old-Fashioned Way one of Fields' most curious total 
irrelevancies occurred. He was cast as the impecunious manager 
of a problem-ridden vaudeville troupe, a part upon which he 
brought to bear an lot of dubious personal experience. At one 
point, traveling in a coach with his hungry band, he received a 
telegram canceling an engagement somewhat farther up the line. 
The sender's identity was of no consequence to the story, but 
Fields, as he read the message in high-flown tones to his charges, 
was unable to resist an ad-libbed flourish at the end. He finished 

235 



W. C. Fields 

the wire, studied a fictitious signature, and with his upper lip 
lifted in careful enunciation, said "Sneed Hearn." 

An assistant directer later asked him out of curiosity what had 
prompted him to tack on the name, and he said, "It just seemed 
like a good idea at the time." 

It was an incident similar to his irrelevant comment a few 
years later during a radio program. In the middle of a script he 
remarked conversationally, "I wear red woolen underwear winter 
and summer" — a gratuitous lie, since he never owned a suit of 
woolen underwear in his life. A member of the production staff 
expressed interest in the statement and he said, "Oh, I don't 
know — people are always telling me things like that as if they 
were letting me in on something." 

The business of scene-stealing represented total war to Fields. 
He had no scruples about tricking his closest friends. His behavior 
was much like that of an amiable but efficient prize fighter; 
during the rounds he was occupied in trying to fracture his 
opponents' skulls; at the bell he was ready to embrace and ex- 
change amenities. Fields had real affection for Bing Crosby, his 
neighbor and occasional companion. In turn, Crosby had an 
idolatrous, filial attitude toward Fields, whom he always called 
"Uncle Bill." They were both gratified when they were cast to- 
gether in the picture Mississippi, which Eddie Sutherland directed. 
Fields was never in better form. His accounts to his gambler 
friends of "cutting a swath" through a living wall of Indians; his 
manipulation of the river boat's wheel, absently tilting his cigar as 
each spoke came by; his poker games — these were sequences 
that pleased him, and he capered along in his most larcenous style. 

Crosby played the scenes with his usual quiet competence, satis- 
fied to let the director worry about where the emphasis was 
falling. He sang and he made love to Joan Bennett, though he 
was consistently interrupted by the overpowering rasp of the 

236 



film's comedian, who jumped the gun on nearly every cue and 
covered the sets like a Great Dane. In a calm way, Crosby is a 
hard man to steal scenes from (he could scarcely have survived a 
string of co-starring pictures with Bob Hope otherwise) ; he gives 
the impression of abetting the thefts, but in doing so he radiates 
such disarming geniality that the felon is caught red-handed. 

In Fields he met a scoundrel of exceptional powers. With all 
Crosby's natural charm he seemed inadequate to the comedian's 
artistic assaults on the limelight. Midway through Mississippi, 
Eddie Sutherland drew Crosby aside and said, "See here, Bing, 
I'm worried about this thing. Bill Fields is walking off with it. 
The old devil's stealing every scene." 

"Well, say, boy," said Crosby, "that's good for the picture, isn't 
it?" 

Sutherland shrugged, and they continued the work. When 
Mississippi was released, Fields went to see it, in one of his 
cockiest humors. He was happy to note that, as predicted, the 
ferocity of the comedian was the dominant chord in the over-all 
production. Toward the end, however, he got the uneasy notion 
that somehow none of this was detracting from Crosby. In the 
lobby afterward (he told a friend) he heard a girl say to her 
companion, "Wasn't he wonderful?" 

Fields coughed modestly, and she added, "I could listen to 
him sing forever." 

Thereafter, Fields implied to several people that Crosby was a 
pretty underhanded sort of fellow, who churlishly relied on the 
illegitimate device of singing. The complainant's tone suggested 
that the practice ought to be stopped. 

Eddie Sutherland feels that the peak of Fields' perversity was 
reached during Poppy, a second cinema version of the stage play, 
which they made together in 1935. For years Fields had been 
trying to introduce his old wheezes, such as his golf and pool acts 

237 



W. C. Fields 

and his croquet sketch, into movies. Knowing this, Sutherland, 
an affable, co-operative man, was happy to tell him, after an 
arduous scene, "Bill, I've got some good news for you." 

Fields looked as if he doubted it. 

"I've figured out a way how we can work the pool game into 
Poppy. It took a lot of reshuffling, but I think I've got it." 

"Well, I won't do it," said Fields, "so that's that." 

Sutherland, staggered, said, "Well, why won't you?" 

"Because it doesn't fit into the plot," said Fields. "Directors 
are always trying to get me to do something like that — and it 
throws everything off balance." 

Sutherland had a cooling drink and sat down in a deck chair 
for a while. He had been dangerously ill with pneumonia only 
recently and was not yet strong. After a while his pulse and 
temperature returned to normal and he approached Fields again. 
"Bill," he said, "I've already told Arthur Hornblow, Jr., we'd 
do this scene." 

"Well, untell him," said Fields. "Producers are all bums any- 
how." 

Sutherland called a recess, dropped into Hornblow's office, and 
explained his star's latest recalcitrance. 

"I'll go out and talk to him," said Hornblow. 

On the set, the producer, trying to be diplomatic, explained 
that he and Sutherland had already made arrangements for the 
scene and that they would be especially obliged if Fields would do 
it, not only for them but for the public, which hadn't seen it 
recently. 

"I'll bet there are kids in this land who have never seen you 
do that turn, Bill," he concluded. 

Fields' face was clouded by surprise. "Naturally I'll do my 
pool act in this picture," he said. "It would be ridiculous not to." 

Hornblow shook hands around and withdrew to his eyrie. 

238 



Sutherland, who was feeling his pneumonia coming back, sat 
down again. "Bill," he said at last, "you haven't any intention of 
doing that pool scene, have you?" 

Fields was whistling, but he broke off to remark, "Not the 
slightest." 

"Then what in the name of heaven prompted you to tell Horn- 
blow you had?" 

The comedian's answer left a good deal to be explained, a not- 
unusual occurrence in his movie career. 

"Aw, the hell with the old buzzard," he said, and left to get 
a drink. 



239 



CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE 



O 



f fields' several peculiarities, his drinking 
aroused the widest interest and misinformation. By the middle 
of his movie period his need for alcohol had crystallized into a 
habit pattern from which he deviated only slightly until the end 
of his life. On the radio, in interviews, often in the movies, he 
was pictured as a frequent drunk, a rip who enjoyed wild ex- 
cesses and spent a lot of time under tables. It would be difficult 
to imagine a more erroneous conception. 

Fields drank steadily, but he abhorred drunks. Drunken visitors 
in his home seldom came back a second time. The signs of drunk- 
enness — thick speech, unsteady gait, rowdiness, overemotional 
confidences — filled him with unease and disgust. Of one of the 
best-known figures of the American stage, after a party at Fields' 
house, Fields said to his secretary, "Never let that fellow come 
through these doors again." The comedian once sulked for weeks 
at John Barrymore, of whom he was particularly fond, because 
the great lover, in elevating his feet to relax, scratched up Fields' 
favorite sofa. "All that Romeo stuff's gone to his head," Fields 
told his secretary as he telephoned some inexpensive upholsterers. 

In his later years, he started a day off with two double martinis 
before breakfast. He arose about nine o'clock, took a shower, 
came downstairs, and drank the martinis slowly, on a porch or 

240 



terrace if the day was fine. His breakfast was modest, by the most 
austere standards. A small glass of pineapple juice generally suf- 
ficed, but if he was especially ravenous, he added a piece of toast 
and another martini to the menu. The liquor had no apparent 
efTect save to sharpen, ever so slightly, his usual morning good 
humor and enhance his appreciation of the California weather, 
which he loved. After breakfast, before going to work, whether 
he was employed at the studios or occupied with scripts at home, 
he walked over his grounds for an hour. He inspected his flowers, 
an exercise that became a guiding passion in his life. Fields was 
one of the great nature men of his generation. His cultivation of 
flowers and his pride at exhibiting them to guests were not af- 
fected ; he was happiest, some of his friends believe, when he was 
submerged in horticulture and removed from the strain of society. 
He had a tendency, however, to personalize his flowers, which 
occasionally plagued him as people did. He once called up 
Gregory La Cava, who devotes many hours, in the California 
manner, to watering plants, and said, "I want you to come right 
over here — I've got some Jack roses that are blooming as big 
as cabbages." 

"Oh, nonsense," La Cava replied. "There isn't any such thing. 
I'm busy." 

Fields insisted, with angry trumpetings, and La Cava left his 
house at Malibu Beach and drove over, a trip of several miles. The 
day was warm, the traffic brisk, and it was some time before he 
arrived. Fields growled at the delay, but ushered him swiftly down 
a lane toward the waiting exhibit. The roses had apparently made 
their bow for the morning; when their sponsor arrived with his 
guest they had retreated to small, tight buds. Fields was enraged. 
He ran up and down the lane, lashing at the offenders with a 
cane, and crying, "Bloom! Bloom, damn you! Bloom for my 
friend!" 

241 



W. C. Fields 

When Fields went to the studios, he took an outsized cocktail 
shaker full of martinis. From the day in New York when he 
bought his first Cadillac, he kept expensive cars (at one time in 
Hollywood he had three Lincolns, two Cadillacs, and a smaller 
station wagon ) and he was always driven to work by a chauffeur. 
The comedian arrived in some state at his places of employment. 
Often he and the chauffeur would make several trips from the 
car to his dressing room, carrying refreshments, clothes and other 
gear. Fields kept up a pretense, which the studio was willing to 
endorse, that his giant cocktail shaker was filled with pineapple 
juice. A joke which went around Hollywood arose from this flimsy 
deception. One afternoon some wags gained access to the shaker, 
when he was absent from the set, and poured in a quantity of 
authentic pineapple juice. When he returned, a few minutes later, 
he took a hearty draft of the liquid and roared, "Somebody's been 
putting pineapple juice in my pineapple juice." 

During the day's shooting he consulted the shaker with regu- 
larity. He was never drunk, never noticeably affected, but around 
4 p.m. he hit a low spot. "He had a little dodge he always worked," 
says Eddie Sutherland. "He would act confused about the story 
and call a conference. We'd put all the chairs around in a circle, 
and he would regale the actors, writers, directors, and technicians 
with stories about his work and his travels. Then, when somebody 
else took up the cudgel, he'd drift off to sleep." Fields' caved-in 
condition lasted no longer than half an hour, after which he was 
good for a couple of hours' work before knocking off. 

The other actors and employees lunched in the studios' com- 
missaries, which serve good food at reasonable prices, but Fields 
always took his noonday meal in his dressing room. Even after 
his skimpy breakfast, he ate very little. His staple lunch was crab- 
meat salad washed down by two or three martinis. As a rule, he 
took a little nap during the lunch hour, too. Though martinis 

242 



formed the skeleton of his liquid diet, he drank other things from 
time to time. At different stages he rested on Irish whisky, scotch, 
bourbon, rye, gin and grapefruit juice, red wine, sherry, rum and 
Coca Cola, and beer. Invariably he had a good reason for shift- 
ing his tippling habits. Rye whisky kept him awake; scotch 
began to taste like medicine; bourbon led to drunkenness; red 
wine made him hot ; sherry was rough on his stomach ; rum went 
to his nose. His affections sometimes wavered, but his true mar- 
ried love was martinis. Members of his household staff estimate 
that his average daily consumption of gin ran to about two quarts. 
He bought nothing but the best of all kinds of liquor, and kept 
hundreds of bottles stored in an upstairs room, to which only he 
had the key. During the recent war, when liquor was scarce, he 
conceived delusions of liquor thefts, and he changed the lock 
guarding the sacred chamber once or twice a month. Quite often 
he went in with a top-secret inventory, compiled by himself, and 
carefully counted his stocks. The indication was always that 
things were in order, but Fields never felt certain. He would go 
downstairs and study his servants' faces, searching for clues to 
abstractions. 

Fields had several jocose utterances on the subject of his drink- 
ing. "I exercise extreme self-control," he liked to say in Hol- 
lywood. "I never drink anything stronger than gin before break- 
fast." In his early middle age he had said substantially the same 
thing, but substituting beer for gin in the sentence. His standards 
and his appetites had altered in the few years. On the general 
subject of his light eating, and of his steady drinking, he sometimes 
said, "I don't believe in dining on an empty stomach." The 
comedian had a trick, late in the evening, of balancing a full 
martini glass on his head, as he had done with the beer bottle at 
his mother-in-law's. If the glass trembled, he said, "There, I've 
had a sufficiency." His skill and his self-command were such that 

243 



W. C. Fields 

the glass seldom shook, and he rewarded himself by lightening its 
load. 

For a man who hated drunks, Fields was in an untenable posi- 
tion. His own strongly publicized drinking prompted many of his 
visitors to overindulgence, so as not to be considered sissified. They 
were perplexed when their sporting efforts seemed to depress 
their host. Fields would have preferred that they remain entirely 
sober, for several reasons. Primarily, he disliked them drunk; also 
he was reluctant to dissipate his stocks recklessly. Except for a 
handful of intimates, he did not encourage callers, but they 
turned up just the same. "It's not my friends but my friends' 
friends that annoy me," he once told a servant. The beforehand 
knowledge that strangers were likely to arrive made him ill at 
ease. He paced around the house, and drank more than usual. 
He always suspected that they would somehow prove trouble- 
some; in addition, he could be pretty sure that they would swill 
his liquor, cut up noisily, and tell him jokes, at which he would 
be expected to laugh immoderately. Everybody told Fields jokes. 
Just as people meeting a writer have a tendency to dredge up 
manuscripts, people meeting a comedian treat him as a straight 
man. A neighbor of Fields, a very slight acquaintance, once ap- 
peared at his house and begged that he accompany him to call 
on a woman "who has been dying to meet you." Fields grumbled, 
thought up numerous excuses, all of which were brushed aside, 
and finally went along, in a sour frame of mind. They arrived 
at a large house, on the porch and front lawn of which was a 
group of people. 

"What is it, a party?" Fields asked uneasily. 

"Oh no, she's quite alone," said his guide. "We'll go in a side 
entrance." He took the comedian into a room decked with 
flowers and up to an opened coffin, where he said to the occupant, 

244 






"Mrs. Burton, may I present W. C. Fields? Mr. Fields, Mrs. 
Burton." 

The comedian was horrified and angry. Looking the acquaint- 
ance sternly in the eye, he said, "I consider this a disgraceful 
breach of good taste. You are no longer welcome on my property." 

Fields made up his mind to swear off now and then. He swore 
off once when he was in a sanitarium, taking a rest cure. His 
room was on the second floor, a pleasant room that looked out on 
trim, landscaped grounds. About a dozen feet from his window 
a couple of languid palms rustled and bent in the light ocean 
breeze. He was happy, and comfortable, and resting up fine, and 
he had a little pull from a gin bottle every so often to add that 
important fillip which makes bliss complete, and nails it down, 
so to speak. Unbeknown to Fields, it was the Halloween season, 
and the management had voted in favor of decoration. A large 
corps of Japanese, hired for the job, was in process of ascending 
the trees, carrying jack o' lanterns. Fields awoke from a refresh- 
ing nap, looked out at his palms, threw his gin bottle at the 
nearest one, and began to bawl for a nurse. "The trees are full 
of monkeys with balloons," he shouted, agitating the adjacent 
sufferers. He got dressed and left as rapidly as possible. When he 
reached home he decided that, even though it was wrong of the 
sanitarium to put monkeys with balloons in the trees, he would 
knock off the gin for a while. He laid in some good sherry and 
drank several bottles a day for a week or so. His stomach ached 
pretty steadily during that period, and he finally returned to the 
gin. But he watched his trees carefully for two or three months. 

After one severe illness, in 1936, Fields quit drinking entirely 
for nearly a year. He began to smoke cigarettes instead, "for re- 
laxing purposes," as he told his household. Alcohol was never a 
stimulant with him; for years he used it as a sedative. His old say- 
ing, "Happiness means quiet nerves," was directly involved with 

245 



W. C. Fields 

his drinking. The comedian's nerves were never of much account, 
being chaffed, lacerated, sensitized, and in general badly worn 
by adversity and work. Physicians now say that some persons are 
born with defective nervous systems, as others are born with 
weak hearts, frail lungs, or infirm heads. Fields, though springing 
from sturdy, placid stock, got off to a restive start. Along the way 
he had extraordinary troubles, and a ghostly army of fears and 
worries began to camp on his trail. In his young manhood he 
discovered that peace of mind, of a rather inferior order, came in 
bottles, and he addressed himself to the remedy. Throughout his 
life it was the only one that ever worked. Despite the cigarettes, 
his year of temperance was a raging failure. He felt weak, run- 
down, tense, sleepless, and pursued. He had previously smoked 
cigars, though listlessly and without relish. The addiction to to- 
bacco struck him as a dull habit; besides, he could never hold 
cigars without wanting to juggle. In his time on the vaudeville 
stage, cigars had formed an important part of his flying parapher- 
nalia. So that later, after he lit one, his mind would wander, his 
hands would begin to twitch, and the cigar would presently 
describe a half-flip and come to rest on his index finger, where 
it would burn a sizable hole. 

Cigarettes gave him even less comfort than cigars, being just 
as inadequate to his need for artificial repose and too small to 
juggle. He never inhaled the smoke; eventually he found some 
comic device whereby he could amuse himself, and others, with 
a cigarette. He would stick one between his nose and upper lip, 
or put one in an ear, and pretend to smoke it with some outre 
and slightly sinister enjoyment. Strangers at a party were likely 
to nudge one another and point at the curious man with the 
lighted cigarette in his ear. In one of his last movies, The Bank 
Dick, he was seen sitting on a park bench surrounded by admiring 
youngsters. The close-up camera explained their interest: the 

246 



great man was going through his old manual of arms with a 
cigarette, and saying, at the end, "Nothing to it, really. I'll teach 
you when you grow up. I never smoked a thing before I was nine." 

Alcohol whetted Fields' sense of humor. Nearly everything 
struck him as funny, in addition to being absurd and reprehen- 
sible, but his appreciation was keener when his nerves were quiet. 
"His timing was better when he was drinking," Mack Sennett 
thinks. "Often when he hadn't had a drink he seemed indecisive, 
other times he was sharp, sure, positive. He was terrified of speak- 
ing lines too fast, which he sometimes did if he was sober. He had 
a saying, 'If you're talking and get nervous, don't go fast — slow 
down.' " Toward the end of his year on soft drinks, Fields decided 
that the game was scarcely worth the candle, and he began to 
freshen up with an occasional nip. Several doctors who were 
in his employ at fantastic sums — one of them was on a retainer 
of $100 a day — tried to keep booze out of his reach. The come- 
dian made a sport out of circumventing them. "We'll play golf," 
said one of the doctors. "That'll tone you up and keep your mind 
off the strong waters." Fields nodded glumly, got out his commo- 
dious golf bag, and made a great show of docileness. But during 
the morning, before each date, he would secrete a dozen or so 
miniature bottles of whisky at various places in the bag. 

When they reached the first tee, the doctor would say, "Now, 
this is the life! All sober? Smell your breath." 

He would check the patient's sobriety, which was, at that 
point, unimpeachable, and get things under way. At the start 
Fields was in a cloudy, uncommunicative mood. This was cor- 
rected as soon as the doctor whaled into the rough or got behind 
a tree. The patient himself seemed to stray into many unflattering 
spots. During the early holes, for example, he seldom missed a 
sand trap and he spent an uncommon amount of time in the 
woods. 

247 



W. C. Fields 

The doctor was pleased to observe that both Fields' spirit and 
his skill improved steadily as they progressed. By and large the 
game had somewhat the reverse effect on the doctor, whom the 
invalid inveigled into making foolhardy bets. 

After the fifth or sixth hole, by which point the patient ap- 
peared to have worked the stiffness out of his muscles, they were 
betting on individual shots as well as on the holes themselves. The 
pattern of wins and losses was pretty constant and even similar, 
the doctor once reflected, to a shell-game sequence he had seen 
Fields do in the movies. The comedian would fumble two 01 
three seemingly easy tries, then double up on an impossible 
approach, sink it by a sort of juggling accident, and collect a 
handful of bills with cries of "Well, what do you know about 
that, Doc, old boy?" and "By gad, this golf's doing the trick!" — 
meanwhile taking deep breaths, beating on his breast, directing 
practice swings at dandelions, and lifting his cap to amused 
onlookers. 

By the end of each day's treatment, Fields had usually recov- 
ered his medical fee and made enough over to take care of the 
next day's whisky. 

Unless he was being preached at, Fields had qualms about 
drinking in front of the clergy. He was an honest agnostic, often 
saying, "I'll go out without knuckling under — they won't find 
me cringing for religion" — but he was respectful around un- 
obtrusive religious persons, of whatever faith. Gregory La Cava, 
who grew up a Catholic, was once visited by two young priests 
from his boyhood parish. They expressed an awed regard for 
Fields, and after lunch their host took them to the comedian's 
house, with misgivings. When the party arrived, Fields was in a 
sulphurous humor; he'd hidden a Mason jar full of martinis and 
was unable to find it. He came to the door, cursing, and threw it 
open with a ceremonial cry of "What the hell do you " then 

248 



stopped, embarrassed. "Oh, excuse me, Fathers," he said, and 
added, "Come in, come in, Greg." For a few minutes his manner 
was quite stiff, as it often was with strangers, but the priests were 
so appreciative, and so entertained by everything he said, that 
he thawed out and, making a circuitous approach to his upstairs 
wine closet (to confound spies), he came down with one of his 
best bottles of whisky. 

"I hope your orders won't prevent you gentlemen from having 
a friendly snort," he said. "The afternoon's drawing on and there's 
a chill in the air." He was delighted when the priests, disclaim- 
ing total abstinence as part of their vows, praised his whisky like 
genuine connoisseurs. Fields unbent as his household had not seen 
him do for months. Even La Cava, an intimate, was surprised 
at the range and warmth of his conversation. 

Toward dinnertime, Fields arose and said, "All of you will 
dine with me at Chasen's — I insist on it." He ordered out his 
best car — at that point a $7000 Lincoln with a silver-plated en- 
gine — and they repaired to his favorite restaurant. Their arrival 
caused a sensation. Habitues of the place, who knew him as 
irreligious and often blasphemous, sat with mouths agape as the 
procession made its way through the crowded rooms. Fields 
seemed proud of his guests ; he stopped at several tables and intro- 
duced them to celebrities. "Father Foley and Father O'Connor 
are visiting me for a while," he said at one table. La Cava, bring- 
ing up the rear, looked sad and resigned. 

Perhaps the most shocked of the diners was Billy Grady, Fields' 
old agent and companion, a devout Catholic, who immediately 
construed the priests as fakes and the parade as one of Fields' 
inexplicable urges for comedy. He was infuriated. As the party 
filed to an upstairs room, he followed along and as soon as they 
were seated he burst in. 

Looking at Fields, and pointing a shaking finger, he said, "You 

249 



W. C. Fields 

sacrilegious old devil, what do you mean pulling this kind of 
thing in here? You're going straight to hell!" To the priests, he 
said, "If you punks are from Central Casting I'll see that you 
never get any more work in this town." 

"Forgive him, Fathers," cried Fields in a loud voice, "he 
knoweth not what he do." 

After a sort of blanket, all-around curse, Grady left, and the 
priests waved Fields' apology aside. They were having a wonder- 
ful time ; they had come to see Hollywood, and they were getting 
a rare, secular close-up of film high life at its best. The diners 
turned their attention to Chasen's excellent food and drink, their 
spirits high, their minds at peace. 

Below decks, Grady was far from easy. A disturbing notion 
had begun to set in. Had he by chance committed a harebrained 
act of lese clergy? Had he, acting with typical lay impulsiveness, 
denounced two authentic messengers of the Lord? He went back 
upstairs and looked in timidly. But his old pard, the skinflint, was 
involved in such an earnest wassail, and seemed so comradely 
with the befrocked pair, that his anger revived, and he hurled 
several more "sacrileges" and "fakers" at them before retiring. 
Fields' pious intonation pursued him down the stairs. Grady 
passed a restless evening. By midnight he was drenched in a per- 
spiration of remorse. 

He visited them once more, to thrust in his head and say, "You 
fellows are from Central Casting, aren't you?" The priests bent 
their heads, Fields made a sign to ward off the devil, and the 
visitor withdrew with celerity. 

When the party left, around one o'clock, Grady accompanied 
them to the door. His face was a study in conflicting emotions. "I 
still don't believe it," he said, as Fields drew delicately aside to 
let the priests pass. The comedian's booming "Forgive him, 
Fathers!" rang through the restaurant as the door swung shut. 

250 






For weeks, Grady tried to pry the truth out of Fields, with no suc- 
cess whatever. He received identical advice — "If I were in your 
shoes, I'd get to my prayers" — on the occasion of each try. 

Although Fields made public sport of his drinking, he was 
sometimes touchy if other people mentioned it. Toward the end 
of his life he took umbrage at Eddie Cline, who had directed 
him, because of statements Cline made about him to a writer. 
Fields was so incensed that he prepared a big ad for the Holly- 
wood Reporter, a movie trade paper. It went : 

Eddie Cline, the director, in his interview with W . Ward Marsh 
of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on April g, ig4$, seems to be doing 
his darnedest to ruin me in the motion-picture business. I quote 
excerpts from the interview: "Fields hasn't been able to get off 
the hard stuff," Cline is supposed to have said. "That's why he 
doesn't appear any more. Understand, I love him, he's a great 
guy, but he will overindulge." He further states that I couldn't 
remember my lines. 

SELF-DEFENSE — / have always finished my pictures, or 
should I say their pictures, in far less time than was allotted to 
me. I ad lib most of my dialogue. If I did remember my lines, it 
would be too bad for me. 

At M-G-M in David Copperfield my part was scheduled for 
ten days; I did it in nine days. 

At Universal my part was allotted ten days; I finished in a 
day and a half. 

At Mack Sennett's I was given two weeks to write and perform 
in a two-reeler. I finished the picture in a day and a half. 

I have worked for such top-flight directors as George Cukor, 
David Wark Griffith, Paul Jones, Gregory La Cava, Leo 
McCarey, Norman McLeod, and Eddie Sutherland {alphabeti- 
cally listed) . 

251 



W. C. Fields 

On the legitimate stage I worked for such master showmen as 
Earl Carroll, Flo Ziegfeld (for whom I worked for nine successive 
years, never missing a performance), George White, etc., etc. 

In radio I worked for Chase & Sanborn and Lucky Strike Ciga- 
rettes and I quit both engagements of my own volition. 

I have never been late or missed a performance either on screen, 
stage, or radio in some forty-odd years. It is true that I occasion- 
ally take a little rum and Coca-Cola or a martini medicinally, but 
I am very proud of my record. I refer you to the above first-line 
directors for verification of the veracity of this statement. 

I don't mean this venomously. I love the guy. But I have been 
looking for an excuse to take a full-page ad in the Reporter for 
some time, and here it is. Defendant rests. 

W. C. FIELDS 
Comedian at Large Without Portfolio 



252 



CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR 



F 

XlEL 



.ields liked houses. He was forever telling real 
estate men he was "in the market for something good," with the 
result that they rode him all over southern California for years, 
showing him places. The comedian never bought a house, never 
had any intention of buying one, but he loved to look. The places 
he rented were all elaborate and expensive; Fields had a horror 
of cramped quarters, dating from the time when he lived in caves 
and barrels, and he left any neighborhood where an influx of 
population seemed imminent. 

His establishment at Toluca Lake, which probably would 
have been commodious enough for Death Valley Scotty or Peter 
the Hermit, finally gave him claustrophobia. "It's getting crowded 
in here," he told his staff, as he prepared to search out another 
roost. The immediate reason for his discomfort was a rumor that 
a well-known film singer had bought a lot and was "thinking 
about" building some three miles from Fields' front gate. Besides 
this evidence of congestion he was annoyed by gulls. The big birds 
had a trick of coming in from the ocean and fishing in the lake, 
now and then harpooning a worthless specimen about three inches 
long. The comedian resented these incursions bitterly. He never 
fished himself, as one of his household pointed out to him, but 
he said he'd be damned if he would provide free delicatessen for 

253 



W. C. Fields 

all the feathered drifters on the Coast. The further fact that he 
did not own the lake, or the fish therein, had no effect on his 
attitude. He bought a gun, a worn army revolver, for $4.50 in a 
pawnshop, and crouched for days behind a stump, trying' to get a 
pot shot at the intruders. 

"You shoot that gun around here and they'll lock you up," 
Gregory La Cava advised him, after witnessing his ambush with 
disgust. 

"They'll have to catch me first," said Fields, squinting meanly 
through some reeds. 

He enjoyed playing the country squire, or, rather, he enjoyed 
the theory of this manner of life, since his household was often 
in a state of turbulence. At Toluca Lake, Fields had a butler 
named "Rod," a colored cook named "Dell," a laundress, various 
maids who appeared and then vanished with lightning rapidity, 
a chauffeur, an occasional trainer, Bob Howard, who is a great 
authority on Fields, and a secretary, Magda Michael, who, as 
nearly as was humanly possible, put order into his last years. For 
the purpose of summoning his staff, the comedian carried a Hal- 
loween horn, upon which he would sound a blast when he needed 
domestic aid. The horn was mostly for out of doors; he disliked 
yelling to the house from distant spots on the grounds. In the 
ambush, for example, he would send out a resonant, jarring call, 
which would cause the birds on the lake to flap their wings and 
complain, and then, when Rod or one of the others approached, 
he would say, "Bring me a shaker of martinis." 

"Here in the bushes, sir?" the butler would inquire. 

"Yes, here in the bushes," Fields would reply testily. "Watch 
yourself, now. Duck down. Don't let them see you. I catch one 
of these buzzards fishing and I'll " 

The butler would pace quickly away, keeping a cautious eye 
on the gun. 

254 



Fields' servants came and went, spurred into transit by his 
peculiar ways. Dell, the cook, outlasted several regimes. During 
one period he discovered that another butler he had was a for- 
mer private detective; from then on he was convinced that his 
staff was spying on him. His panacea for this was to try to play 
them against one another, to divert attention from himself. He 
would draw his cook aside and say, "I know there's nothing in 
this, but that damned butler told me you were stealing canned 
goods. You'd better keep an eye on him." Later on, to the butler, 
he would say, "Mind you, I'm on your side, but the cook's been 
carrying tales about you and the upstairs maid." His house was 
in perfect running order, Fields considered, when his servants 
had quit speaking to one another and were in a condition border- 
ing on collapse. 

After Toluca Lake he rented a house and seven acres at 
Encino, a sort of ranch house with an orange grove. It was a 
beautiful place and had a big tile pool, which Fields never used, 
and a tennis court, which he used a great deal. When he was 
home, he played almost every day with Sam Hardy, a giant of a 
man, an actor friend of Fields from the Follies days. Also much 
in evidence at Encino was a stooge of Fields, a vastly shorter fel- 
low named Tammany Young, who appeared in pictures with 
him and looked after his martini glass off the set. For some 
reason, Fields always had a fancy for people out of the common 
run physically. At one time on the West coast he employed a 
stooge with a head about the size of a number-two grapefruit. 
"With that head he'll own Hollywood," Fields told several 
friends. 

He and Sam Hardy played tennis by the hour. Hardy played 
stripped to the waist, but Fields, whose skin was sensitive to the 
sun, wore a shirt, a sleeveless sweater, and a linen cap. His nose 
was generously larded with Allen's Footease. After considerable 

255 



W. C. Fields 

work in the comedian's garage, they fitted out a coaster wagon 
with two decks and used it as a kind of rolling bar, on which 
were carried ice buckets, mixes, a dozen or so bottles, and both 
cocktail and highball glasses. Fields often played tennis with a 
racket in one hand and a martini glass in the other. He was a 
competent player, accurate, powerful, and ruthless, though dis- 
inclined to chase a ball that looked out of reach. He had a vicious 
chop shot that landed just over the net, with reverse English, and 
bounced back on his side, much as he had made tennis balls be- 
have when he was juggling. His years of precision work and 
split-second timing had given him an uncanny eye ; like Dempsey 
and a few other sports champions, he could read the printing on 
a revolving phonograph disk. His drives at the base line raised 
lime often enough to keep Sam Hardy, like Fields' doctor, hard 
pressed for cash. 

In one way, Fields had more peace of mind at Toluca Lake 
than at Encino. During much of his residence at the first place 
he was unemployed; in addition, he had established the myth of 
his disaster in the stock market. By Encino he was making big 
money again and his thoughts had turned to kidnaping. He began 
to be a little touched on the subject. Quite often he would quiz 
his staff as to whether they had heard eerie noises during the 
night. He often carried one of his two blackjacks, either an ordi- 
nary one that he had bought or a streamlined one a policeman 
had given him for "evening wear." 

Fields was positive that villains were frequently aprowl down- 
stairs in the small hours of the morning. His device for frighten- 
ing them off made sleep impossible for everybody near by. He 
carried on loud conversations with fictitious bodyguards, punctu- 
ating his remarks with grisly laughter provoked by thoughts of 
the carnage to follow. "All right, you ready, Joe, Bull, Muggsy?" 
he'd yell around 2 a.m. "Let's go down and get 'em, then. Take 

256 



it a little easy — I know you boys are former prize fighters and 
gunmen but I'd rather you didn't shoot to kill. Try to get them 
in the spinal cord or the pelvis. Ha ha ha ha ha — this ought to be 
good!" His servants would curse and toss in their beds. 

The Encino residence was rented for only a year, from a family 
that was taking a trip. So great was Fields' fondness for the house 
that, when they returned, he tried to double the rent and keep it. 
But they preferred to move back in, and he engaged a mansion at 
Bel-Air, a fashionable section near Beverly Hills. Among the 
first things he did in the new house was to get a carpenter and an 
ironmonger and put heavy bars on both the outside and the in- 
side of the upstairs doors. The owner called one day on business 
and was clearly peeved at the new decorations. "But it seems so 
unnecessary," he kept saying. Fields gave him a mysterious look, 
to indicate that there was more here than met the eye, and tried 
to reassure him. "I'm going to leave them for you," he said, "and 
I'm not going to charge you a dime." 

At Bel-Air, more than at any of his other residences, Fields 
lived a social life. He was deep in the movie swim, and he gave 
occasional parties, with the most lavish attention to food and 
wines. Several of his soirees were complicated by domestic trouble. 
He had one butler at Bel- Air, a small, wizened man, whom Fields 
suspected of being an international poisoner. It was the come- 
dian's unflattering custom to inspect fancy dishes handled by this 
butler, and to have somebody, such as a maid or the chauffeur, 
come in and taste them. If the guinea pigs didn't fall over and 
die, the master went ahead and dined. The butler being a thin- 
skinned fellow, all this led to bad feeling. In rebuttal, Fields re- 
fused to pay his salary. One evening during a dinner for sixteen 
people, the butler came in and demanded to be paid. Fields con- 
tinued imperturbably to eat, though a number of his guests gave 
positive indication of tension. The man finally became so vocifer- 

257 



W. C. Fields 

ous that Fields blew up and telephoned the police. At the same 
time, Gene Fowler, one of the guests, called some of his friends 
on the homicide squad. 

At first glance, what with the abundance of official help, it 
would seem that the problem might soon have been solved. But 
when the patrolmen and the homicide agents arrived they got 
into a rackety jurisdictional row, and the matter of Fields and 
his butler was more or less shelved. Throughout most of the up- 
roar Fields continued to eat, having had nothing but martinis 
since breakfast. Around midnight he gave the butler a check and 
fired him. Three days later, the man having refused to leave, 
Fields chased him off the grounds with a revolver. He fired several 
shots and thought he winged him as the butler vaulted over a 
neighbor's wall, though no report was ever made. The fellow got 
clean away. About two months after this, Fields went to dinner at 
Pandro Berman's and the talk turned to butlers. "I've got a gem," 
said Berman. "A wonderful stroke of luck, really. He runs this 
house like a well-oiled machine." A few minutes later the small, 
wizened man whom Fields had fired came in and set a plate of 
unidentifiable hors d'oeuvres in front of the comedian. Fields 
refused to eat them. "This guy will poison you," he yelled at 
Berman. "You'll see." He left the table and sat in the living room 
during dinner; afterward, on his way home, he stopped at a 
roadside stand and ate four hot dogs. 

Fields had more than the average run of butler trouble. An- 
other man he hired, a strapping bruiser known around the house 
as "The chimpanzee," raised dissension from the beginning. 
Fields was afraid of the chimpanzee, who belonged to a Turn- 
verein and spent all his spare time developing his muscles. He 
hung a couple of big rings in the garage and worked out on them 
daily. One time after his boss had detected impudence in his 
manner, the chimpanzee went out to the garage, jumped up to 

2 5 8 



his rings, and took a gigantic swing, with spectacularly bad results. 
At the end of his arc, the ropes broke, or became unfastened, and 
the man took a wrenching header into a pile of old furniture. As 
he lost consciousness, he said later, he heard a kind of hoarse, 
maniacal laughter from a darkened corner of the building. The 
fall almost put him out of commission; when he recovered he 
threatened to sue Fields, but the comedian paid him off, with a 
small bonus, and he left peacefully. 

Magda Michael, Fields' secretary for twelve years, who is now 
executrix of his estate, first went to his house at Toluca Lake 
in 1934 to help him with a dictaphone he had bought. The come- 
dian had decided to capture, for posterity, the mental gems that 
visited him as he loafed around the premises. To transcribe his 
first notes, the dictaphone company suggested Miss Michael, not 
only because she was exceptionally competent at secretarial work 
but because she had a philosophic disposition, not likely to be 
ruffled by the eccentricities of genius. When she arrived, she found 
her employer's affairs in a remarkable state of dishevelment. He 
had a desk almost identically like one that had turned up in a film 
he had recently made. The scene probably represented a dream of 
Fields; in it he was seated at a huge roll-top desk which was 
stuffed to bursting with papers of every size and shape, a picture 
of hopeless confusion. Fields, working at the desk with his hat on, 
was approached by a cringing client who asked for "that deed we 
were talking about a couple of years ago." Without looking up, 
Fields reached into the mess, withdrew a yellowed paper, and 
handed it over. 

Miss Michael recalls no such miracle on the occasion of her first 
visit. The fact is, Fields, after shuffling through the desk for ten 
minutes, was unable to find his dictaphone rolls, and it took him 
the better part of the morning to locate them in an icebox, where 
he had absently placed them beside a jar of martinis. He seemed 

259 



W. C. Fields 

a little sheepish about the pearls he had collected during the past 
week, looking especially uncomfortable about one passage that 
referred to the musical daughter of a high government official as 
"a horse's ass," a designation by no means cleared up by its con- 
text, which dealt with the general subject of picnics. 

The dictaphone company's sending Miss Michael to Fields 
turned out to be one of the great boons of his life. For the most 
part, his experiences with the other sex had been costly and dis- 
appointing. It was refreshing to him to meet a brisk, efficient 
woman who was both attractive and companionable but who had 
no romantic interest in him and no designs on his fortune. He 
found himself chatting with agreeable freedom ; besides, he began 
to have that rare and wonderful feeling — a presentiment of 
lessened responsibility. "See here," he said on her next visit, by 
which time she had copied off unconstructive comments on sea 
gulls, butlers, other comedians, trespassers, income-tax officials, 
marriage, bankers and temperance, "why don't you come out 
here and take over? Obviously, things are going to pot." Miss 
Michael, who had just been apprised that thirty-two bankbooks in 
one corner of the desk had not been sent in for interest computa- 
tion in more than twenty years, replied that she would as soon 
work for the comedian as anybody else, and he promptly took on 
a calculating look. 

"So, so," he said, "well, we'll strike a bargain. I'll pay you ten 
dollars a day for every day I need you. But mind, now, not a dime 
when you're not here." 

Fields' establishment seemed an interesting and even an edu- 
cational place of employment, and she agreed to his terms, not 
without some amusement. Their relationship proved felicitous, 
and she acted as his secretary and all-around adviser off and on 
until his death. During the twelve-year period he handed over ten 
dollars at the end of each day's work, though she was frequently 

260 



there every day for weeks in a row. From the day of her appear- 
ance at Toluca Lake, he addressed her only as "Mickey Mouse," 
and he never bothered to explain why. 

Another important member of Fields' household in this phase 
was Carlotta Monti, his companion, friend, and practical nurse 
for fourteen years, a pretty, volatile girl of Mexican and Italian 
ancestry. The comedian and Miss Monti met when he was work- 
ing for Paramount in Million-Dollar Legs and she, as a bit player 
and dancer for the same studio, was asked to appear in some stills 
with him. Like Miss Michael, Miss Monti, from the start, found 
Fields a worthy subject for study, and she has preserved a mental 
catalogue of his foibles. On the occasion of their meeting she 
sensed that the comedian would have liked her phone number but 
that he had too much ego to ask for it. He walked her to her car, 
making genteel, courteous conversation. On her part, she essayed 
a few slender jokes, at which he laughed without restraint. She 
believes they were among the last jokes of hers he ever laughed at. 
Fields was often deferential to people until he came to know them, 
after which he relaxed. Miss Monti, an alert, good-natured girl, 
thoroughly enjoyed his fumbling efforts to become acquainted. 
She recalls that he said, "I hope you live conveniently near the 
studio?" 

"Oh, yes," she said, "right in Hollywood." 
"Very clever of you. South end of town, eh?" 
"Well, no, more on the order of the middle, or north end." 
Fields let a cane he was carrying snag onto a bush, and he 
killed two or three minutes unhooking it. Then he said, "It's a 
tough life — they don't care when they rout you out, any time of 
the day or night." 

"Yes, they call me, too," she agreed. "On the telephone." 
"A wonderful invention," said the comedian, and opened her 
car door, unable to voice the direct question. The Machiavellian 

261 



W. C. Fields 

byways of his mind prevented anything so simple as asking for a 
phone number; he had to resort to something devious. Two days 
later, he sent a writer they both knew to pick her up and take her 
riding after work. By an elaborate, unconvincing accident, the 
man made a beeline for Fields' place and said, "Well, what do 
you know ! We're right here next to old Bill Fields'. Why don't we 
drop in and say hello?" 

Such was the surprising nature of their visit that Fields had 
assembled a fancy cocktail spread and was waiting on the lawn, 
all dressed up. He came forward with characteristically hollow ex- 
pressions of amazement, meanwhile making energetic signals to a 
butler he had secreted in the shrubs. The party got under way. By 
another coincidence, the writer shortly recalled that an aunt of 
his was about to undergo an operation for eczema and he left for 
the hospital. 

Miss Monti and Fields hit it right off. He was attracted to her 
because of her good looks, her ebullience and her generous 
nature, though his face fell slightly when he learned that she was 
an ardent spiritualist. She, on their second meeting, glanced at 
him suddenly and exclaimed, "Why, you look like a little 
Woody!" (rhymes with "moody"), an indescribable denizen or 
object known only to Miss Monti and her God. She has no hints 
as to the origin of this term; the comparison must simply be put 
down as one of those divinations that come to those in communi- 
cation with the spirit world. In any case, Fields agreed that his 
resemblance to a Woody was, in fact, strong, and the amenities 
flourished. The friendship between the comedian and Miss Monti 
— warm, fitful, therapeutic — was of great benefit to both of them. 
On her side, she gained an education that is denied to all but the 
privileged few, in addition to being mentioned in his will, and he 
found in her a dedicated attendant who stuck unselfishly by him 
until the sad, bitter end. 

262 



Fields' subsequent attitude toward the writer who had brought 
her out is of passing interest. Thenceforward, he never had 
anything to do with the man at all. Presumably, Fields took the 
notion that the writer might have conceived designs on Miss 
Monti during the brief car ride. Whatever the reason, he spoke 
of him in the most distrustful terms from then on out. The come- 
dian was suspicious and jealous of nearly everybody. In the 
family circle (Miss Monti moved in and took up her duties soon 
after their introduction ) Fields preferred to dominate the conver- 
sation, and he brooked no loose compliments, or even any refer- 
ences, to other funny men. Miss Michael often stayed overnight, 
if her work had piled up. She has vivid impressions of the group 
clustered around the radio, searching for something not likely to 
irritate the master. While Fields listened to the radio a good deal, 
he also damned it eloquently and burlesqued it for home con- 
sumption. Both Miss Michael and Miss Monti agree that he gave 
splendid shows, of artistic worth rivaling that of his paid per- 
formances — a compelling tribute to his preoccupation with the 
medium. 

At the bottom of Fields' radio list were operatic divas. During 
programs in which these ladies rode the air, he stuffed a pillow 
in his shirt front and walked around the house braying like a 
jackass. His gestures, his expressions, occasionally even his tones, 
had striking verisimilitude, and his single-handed portrayal of 
Carmen, an omnibus effort in which he took note of several parts, 
including those of the fidgety heroine, the toreador, Micaela, a 
number of gypsies, several soldiers, and the bull, established new 
peaks in this kind of work. 

Fields was very keen on advertising, especially that of the to- 
bacco hawkers. He often tried to ferret meaning out of sentences 
like "More doctors smoke Gubebs than formerly," "Repeated tests 
have proved that Corn Silks are not responsible for 67 per cent 

Q63 



W. C. Fields 

of bad breath originating in the mouth," and "Your Y-Zone is 
safe with Hempies, the middle-sized cigarette." He was ever on 
the lookout for additions of valuable new ingredients, such as 
Latakia and chloroform, and he marveled that almost every 
cigarette was far outselling its competitors. In the windup, he 
realized that the ultimate end of the fight for mildness was no 
tobacco at all, and he quit smoking in response to advertising of 
this sort. 

Now and then, when he had finished a successful movie, Fields 
ventured to listen to other comedians. On one memorable evening 
he announced to a stunned household that Jack Benny was a very 
accomplished performer. "The boy's got real timing, and I've 
always appreciated that talent," he said. The following Sunday, 
Miss Monti turned to the Benny program, and Fields jarred the 
radio with an accurately thrown volume of Martin Chuzzlewit. 
"I never heard such claptrap in my life!" he roared; then he 
turned to a musical hour which he detested. 

During the late war he was a passionate follower of the course 
of events. He listened to all the commentators, cursed and railed 
at the Japs and Germans, and bought a gaudy map, into which he 
thrust colored pins at odd, erroneous places, such as Madagascar 
and Peru. The war bit into Fields deeply. He discussed it at great 
length one afternoon with Lionel and John Barrymore, Gene 
Fowler, and John Decker, the artist. Their hatred of the foe pro- 
voked them to have quite a few drinks, and the drinks increased 
their hatred of the foe. Around four o'clock, in full battle humor, 
they got in a car and drove down to enlist. At the time, besides 
being fairly well along in both years and alcohol, most of them 
were suffering from some incapacitating illness. For example, it 
was thought best to take Lionel Barrymore's wheel chair along, 
in case they got an immediate overseas assignment. His colleagues 
assisted him from the car to his chair, after which they pushed him 

264 



in. The girl at the recruiting center, after her first shock, had 
them fill out several forms, upon which she noted many doubtful 
entries. John Barrymore gave his age as nineteen, Fowler outlined 
somewhat more military experience than General Pershing's, and 
Fields requested duty as a commando. The girl looked them over 
carefully, then made what all of them cherished as a topping ex- 
ample of spot, gubernatorial wit. 

"Who sent you?" she said. "The enemy?" 



265 



CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE 



O 



f all Fields' houses, the one he liked best was a 
big Spanish place on a high hill in the center of Hollywood. The 
area is known as Laughlin Park, a quiet, faintly aristocratic col- 
lection of green knolls that struggle up above the glamour and 
neon. A handful of fine old houses, remindful of the leisurely but 
perhaps unphotogenic dons, has resisted the onward, indigenous 
march of redwood and glass ; ringed by hedges, shaded by palms, 
they stand almost unseen on their inessential hills, tourist-free and 
forgotten in a city restlessly expanding. 

Fields leased his house for five years in 1940, obtaining it by 
some mischievous device for $250 a month, which included a 
worn Japanese gardener, who presumably was installed on the 
property with the shrubbery and plumbing. Soon after the trans- 
action the war talk thickened, prices went up, and the owner re- 
pented his hasty grant. He came around and asked Fields to hike 
the rent, out of common humanity. The response this provoked — ■ 
peals of wild, triumphant laughter — set off one of the great real 
estate feuds of the century. Fields felt that he had put a lot of 
anxiety into the house ; he intended to cling tight to his gains. His 
old friend William Le Baron had previously rented the place, and 
during a period when the producer was desperately ill, Fields had 

266 



been torn by agonizing emotions. Many days when the mansion 
had seemed almost within his grasp, Le Baron had miraculously 
rallied, and checked the comedian's plans. After reading one 
cheerless newspaper report, Fields called Le Baron's hospital and 
talked to his nurse. "Are there any late bulletins?" he asked in a 
bereaved tone. "Mr. Le Baron is much better," said the nurse. 
"His physician is optimistic for the first time." 

"It's a lie!" roared Fields. "He isn't going to pull through. 
Damn him, I'll get that house — you wait and see." 

The nurse reported this solicitous exchange to Le Baron, who 
rallied enough further to laugh weakly. 

"I don't think Bill actually wanted me to die," he says. "But 
he was a practical man, and he sure planned to get that house if I 
did die. As it turned out, I moved and he got it anyhow." 

Fields always kept the telephones warm when his friends were 
going through a crisis. One time when Gene Fowler was involved 
in a terrible automobile accident, and lay at the point of death, 
Fields, having just got the news, called the hospital in the early 
hours of the morning. He was put through to a flustered nurse. 

"How is he?" asked Fields. 

"We're not sure — the doctors told the reporters he may be 
going," the nurse replied. 

"Is he conscious?" 

"Yes. I can deliver a message, Mr. Fields." 

"Then tell the son of a bitch to get up from there and quit 
faking," said the comedian. A few minutes later, one of his house- 
hold found him downstairs, sitting in a corner and crying. 

Fields' house was on De Mille Drive, a circumstance that irked 
him. The pioneer movie maker of that name lived just across the 
road, on somewhat higher ground, an elevation disparity that 
also bothered Fields. Because of the name, and his subordinate sea 
level, the comedian took a snarling dislike to De Mille that ap- 

267 



W. C. Fields 

peared to be without any other foundation. Hearing De Mille's 
car start up, he would peer balefully through the shrubs and snort. 
If the weathered gardener was working near by, he would grab 
his arm and point. 

"There he goes," Fields would cry. "Confound him! Look at 
him ! Now what do you think of that?" 

"Yamgatso moo toya?" the gardener would say, or something 
equally puzzling. At no time during the five years Fields had the 
house did the two exchange a single understandable scrap of 
conversation. It is highly likely, several people feel, that the Jap 
didn't know the house had changed hands. Both his origin and his 
tongue were obscure ; reliable authorities claim that his utterances 
were garbled not only to Americans but to Japanese. Nevertheless, 
Fields continued to talk to him as though they had some means 
of communication. "Yamgatso moo toya?" the gardener would 
repeat, with a look of mild inquiry, and Fields would answer : 

"De Mille. It's that damned old director. Look at him, look at 
that car. Where do you suppose he's going?" 

"Negato yum ramsaky fui/' the Jap might say, and perhaps 
laugh. 

"Well, I tell you what we'll do. We'll sneak over there tonight 
and build a Burmese tiger trap on his lawn. Drat the old devil — 
we'll fix him up good." 

The gardener would look comprehending, then hand Fields a 
potted plant, and they would retreat to the house, each talking 
volubly, neither getting through, each busy and satisfied on his 
own mysterious circuit. 

Fields' staff thought that in some secret recess of his heart he 
had a grudging admiration of De Mille ; the ranting was designed 
to cover it up. Certainly when the two met, the comedian was 
perfectly courteous. He would lift his hat, smile, call out a cheery 
"Good morning," and step along as briskly as if his house were 

268 



as high as anybody's. Later, at home, he would report fictitious 
chats with his neighbor, upon which occasions he referred to De 
Mille as "Cease," a comradely abbreviation of "Cecil." 

"Talking to Cease out there a minute ago," he'd say. "We're 
going to put a gate down on that lower end to keep out the 
picnickers." 

Deanna Durbin lived on a nearby hill for a while, causing 
Fields great distress. He was worried sick that she might come out 
and sing in her yard. Against this awful contingency he prepared 
several measures. For a while he figured that he would have her 
arrested; later, he thought he might get a dog and train it to 
howl at the sound of feminine melody ; perhaps the severest of his 
statements was that he would "get a good bead from the upstairs 
balcony and shoot her." 

The house on De Mille Drive was entered after a long walk 
down a red-tile lane overhung with trellises. On either hand, 
carpetlike lawns sloped off steeply; they rolled and dipped with 
the contours of Fields' private hills. On one side of the house they 
formed an irregular bowl, whose face was as sheer as an alpine 
pasture. In the center was a lily pond, upon whose rippled surface 
a toy sailboat, given him by Magda Michael, steered to and fro 
in the shifting ocean breeze. It was to be the scene of an episode 
that Fields never quite got over. 

The house had cavernous rooms, many of them paneled in rich 
oak or walnut, and long, broad stairways. Fields' decor, though 
interesting, was a sharp departure from that of most Spanish 
houses in southern California. In the center of his living room, 
beneath an elegant chandelier, he had a pool table in pretty good 
condition, and in the drawing room he had a ping-pong table. 
Around the walls of both rooms stood high-bottomed chairs such 
as are found in most pool halls, and a further attraction of the 
living room was a small bowling alley. A low-ceilinged balcony, 

269 



W. C. Fields 

of impressive, feudal appearance, circled part of this chamber; 
from its place of vantage Fields often watched pool games. He 
made a pretty picture, reminiscent of a mellower age — the squire 
of the manor, glass in hand, shouting encouragement to the lords : 
"Eight ball in the side pocket, Joe — reverse English! Reverse 
English!" 

In another of the downstairs rooms Fields had a barber's chair, 
with a number of towels, aprons, and so on. The comedian had 
his hair cut off the premises, as being fifty cents cheaper, but he 
needed the barber's chair for sleeping purposes. During the time 
of his joyless youth he had found haircuts among bis principal 
luxuries. After a night huddled in a frozen doorway and a morn- 
ing selling papers on an icy corner, he would squander a quarter 
for the privilege of sinking deep into warm black leather, steamed 
cloths and bottled, upper-class scents. As his middle years ad- 
vanced, his sleeping became an increasing problem. He discovered 
that by re-creating the snug impressions of his early trims he 
could doze in occasional peace. Many afternoons saw him 
stretched out in his chair, the aprons and towels tucked all around, 
dreaming of the old, brief comforts. His regard for his barber's 
skill was such that he kept trying to persuade the fellow, an 
Italian, to leave his brain to the Moler Barbers' College. 

Upstairs, Fields had his exercise room, a large, sunny room 
filled with things such as rowing machines, stationary bicycles, 
Indian clubs, and steam cabinets. To this room came Bob 
Howard, the trainer, several times a week. He undertook the 
overhauling of Fields after rescuing from West coast erosion such 
notables as Lady Mendl, Cole Porter, Myrna Loy, Jon Hall, 
Irving Berlin, and Harry Richman. By comparison with Fields, 
this spirited group, together with his other clients, began to seem 
like lambs, but Howard hung on, determined to put the comedian 
in shape or join him in a sanitarium. After a fashion, Fields fol- 

270 



lowed instructions, but he always added what struck Howard as 
an unnecessary touch of his own. For instance, he would, as di- 
rected, dress in a sweat suit and mount the stationary bicycle for 
a long ride, but he generally drank several martinis en route. He 
would pedal along stolidly, now and then honking a handle-bar 
klaxon he had installed "to break the monotony," and sip from 
the glass resting in his free hand. His rowing machine provided 
one of Fields' favorite exercises. He would place a drink about 
two feet from the rear end of the device, then, backwatering 
desperately, pretend to chase it as racing greyhounds chase a 
mechanical rabbit. "I'm gaining!" he'd cry at the disgusted 
Howard. "This is wonderful — these workouts are going to in- 
crease my liquor consumption 2 or 3 hundred per cent." Often, as 
he rowed along, he would sing sea chanteys or bawl profane in- 
structions to an imaginary crew. He developed into a good oars- 
man. No matter how rough the water, he always caught up with 
the drink. For some reason that Howard is unable to explain, 
Fields preferred highballs while seated in his steam cabinet. With 
weary resignation the trainer would zip him up (in a special 
electric-steam cabinet of his own design ) , leave his head and one 
arm free, and hand him a drink; then he would sit by while 
Fields carried on about the wonders of physical culture. 

Howard, who was a fine athlete, occasionally boxed with Fields 
on the lawn. He found the comedian fast, strong, shifty, and ut- 
terly untrustworthy. After feigning severe fatigue, the former 
juggler was likely to come up with a crushing uppercut, then 
offer windy expostulations that it was "a regrettable accident." 
Howard learned to keep his guard up and watch him closely. 
Fields hated to be bested at anything. Howard, in his off time, 
was given to reading Shakespeare and other weighty authors, and 
he engaged his client in intellectual conversations. After a few 
sessions of this, Fields contrived ornate countermeasures. He 

2JI 



W. C. Fields 

would sit up late at night, with volumes of miscellaneous infor- 
mation. After memorizing a long string of facts, he would be all 
primed when the trainer arrived the next morning. He steered the 
conversation to his pets indirectly. "Hear old Bing won himself a 
couple of races yesterday," he'd say, with a pleased chuckle. 

"That so?" Howard would murmur, and go on, "No doubt you 
recall that passage in The Merchant of " 

"A curious thing," Fields would boom, admitting no competi- 
tion, "about that notion that horses were first discovered in 
Arabia." 

As a rule, Howard fell into the trap, and Fields' morning was 
made. He had two names for his trainer; one, "The Learned 
Professor," was a tribute to Howard's erudition, the other, "Hori- 
zontal Howard," was a kind of envious sneer at his sleeping 
ability. The fact that the trainer was able to take naps at odd 
times nettled Fields; he himself, if he was lucky, often could get 
to sleep only after Howard had exercised and massaged him into 
a state of limp exhaustion. 

With all their petty bickering, and despite Fields' many in- 
fractions of the course, he benefited greatly from his formal 
attempts to stay in training. His consumption of alcohol, instead 
of increasing, lessened for quite a while. Howard lectured him 
constantly about drinking hard liquor, and even cut a hole in 
Fields' shower curtain to police him during the sequestered period 
of his baths. Prior to the peephole, at the end of a morning's mod- 
eration, the comedian would often come out of his shower singing 
and in rare bloom. Suspicious, Howard investigated the soggy 
chamber and found a miniature bar hung on wires beneath the 
soap dish. 

It was Howard who persuaded Fields to switch to red wine and 
soda for several months. The trainer's solicitous inquiries about 
how it was working all provoked the same answer: "Rotten." 

272 



When the comedian decided to give up the wine, which he said 
was too rich for his blood, he had iceboxes placed in nearly every 
room in the house. He had thought it best to return to the less 
dangerous martinis, and martinis, he said, should be kept cold to 
preserve their medicinal powers. His additions to the house, of 
whatever kind, were all done at his own expense. As prices con- 
tinued to climb, and he steadfastly refused to boost his rent, the 
owner understandably balked at making the slightest improve- 
ment or repair. The house more or less went to seed. Parts of the 
downstairs ceiling became loosened, and huge strips hung down 
several feet. One of the largest was directly over the pool table, 
making it a little hazardous to play. As games nevertheless 
progressed, chunks of plaster and wood occasionally fell down 
and had to be brushed aside before the players could continue. 

Fields' ideas of improvements were frequently bizarre. With- 
out much hesitation the owner declined to install a system of dic- 
taphones throughout the house during a period when Fields felt 
that his servants were plotting. The comedian went ahead and 
had the system put in himself. It was expensive, but he placed the 
machines everywhere, even in the pantry and over the front 
door stoop. Upon this program Fields brought to bear all his 
furtive ingenuity, suggesting such hiding places as in chandeliers, 
behind pictures, in the bottoms of chairs, and under washbasins. 
The master panel of all this foolishness was on the outsize desk 
in Fields' study, a large upstairs room, with a balcony, that served 
as the pilothouse, so to speak, of his domestic ship. On days when 
conspiracy seemed thick in the air, he stayed close to his panel, 
hoping to pick up mutinous scraps. Since all the servants soon 
knew about the dictaphones, and because they had no plans to 
mutiny, the tidbits he collected made pretty dull listening. Never- 
theless, he remained alerted, his face lit up in vindication, as he 
struggled to read sinister imports into remarks like "We need 

273 



W. C. Fields 

some more salt" and "I wish he'd quit leaving magazines in here." 
Also on his desk (which was the apple of his eye) Fields had 
a spyglass, with which to sweep the lawn for trespassers, his 
horse pistol, with which to shoot them if they proved intractable, 
writing materials, a stack of newspapers, and a pot of paste and 
a pair of scissors. He spent a great deal of time at his desk, 
creating an atmosphere of bustling importance. Periodically he 
would step out on the balcony, taking his spyglass and pistol, and 
search carefully for felons. On one such occasion, after a quiet 
morning with the dictaphone, he actually spotted a formidable 
boarding party headed his way down the red-tile path. It was a 
meek group of nuns distributing pamphlets urging some worthy 
charity, but Fields, springing into action, mustered all possible 
strength to repel them. He decided on Plan D, involving use of 
the dictaphone, whose door-stoop branch he switched on immedi- 
ately. Holding the microphone close to his mouth, he launched a 
hair-raising and profane domestic argument, taking the parts of 
both husband and wife and touching on the most delicate as- 
pects of marriage. The nuns hitched up their skirts and ran like 
rabbits, jettisoning pamphlets right and left, to add that marginal 
soupcon of acceleration which so often means the difference be- 
tween freedom and capture. 

Fields was always courteous to religious people unless their 
broadsides were aimed in his direction. It was a maxim of his life. 
The paste pot and scissors on his desk were for deleting and 
affixing to letters pertinent items from his newspapers, most of 
which were house organs of well-known penitentiaries. The 
comedian liked to keep up with the prison news; he pretended 
that he was following the careers of many old friends. When he 
encountered a squib that amused him, he would clip it and mail 
it, with some appropriate comment, to one of his unincarcerated 
companions. Fields kept his friends posted about all sorts of devel- 

274 



opments that interested him. A more or less typical observation 
was one he sent Gene Fowler on November 16, 1939. It read, in 
its entirety : 

Dear Mr. F. 

Mr. Claude Millsap is now associated with the Baldwin Shirt 
Company of Glendale. He left his card with me this morning. I 
thought you would be glad to hear of his progress. Claude has 
been working in socks and underwear for years and we are all 
happy to know that he has made the grade. 

Your loving Uncle William. 

Magda Michael did his dictation, sitting in a chair on a some- 
what lower level than her employer. Fields' desk was deliberately 
situated, Miss Michael believes, in the frowning manner of Jack 
Oakie's in The Great Dictator, when, as Mussolini, he contrived a 
physical eminence to gain moral superiority. Fields dictated ten 
or fifteen hot letters a day, raising hell about something, with 
prejudicial attention to the government. In the interest of cool- 
headedness, he kept the letters four hours before mailing them. 
Then he threw all of them in a wastebasket and cleared his desk 
for the next day's peeves. 

Fields was a keen political observer. Actually, his personal poli- 
tics were simple: he was violently against whatever government 
was in power and felt affectionate toward any and all people 
who belabored it. Fowler dropped by his house one election day 
and found the comedian on his way down to vote. He was dressed 
rather shabbily, so as to not give government people the idea he 
was rich, and his expression was fierce. 

"Who you going to vote for, Uncle Willie?" asked Fowler. 

"Hell, I never vote for anybody," cried Fields, incensed, "I 
always vote against. 33 

He had a pretty good idea that governments were organized 

275 



W. C. Fields 

chiefly to separate him from income-tax money, and he spent 
several weeks of each year trying to think up ways to forestall this 
separation. Both Miss Michael and Miss Monti recall that 
income-tax month was a severe trial for everybody in the house. 
Fields' manner was irritable and conspiratorial in the extreme. 
Miss Michael often helped him with his return, as Grady had 
done, but her counsel was largely ignored. She remembers sug- 
gesting, at one point, that no good could accrue from his deducting 
depreciation on a borrowed lawn mower, and another time she 
demurred at his construing twelve cans of weed killer as a pro- 
fessional expense. One year he deducted his bill for liquor, which 
he said was a necessary tool of his trade. 

Westbrook Pegler came to visit Fields one day, and the two 
conversed at length on the general subject of vice-presidents. 
Pegler suggested, and Fields agreed, that a movie built around a 
typical Vice-President of the United States might be funny. They 
decided to concentrate their research, in the main, on Henry 
Wallace's speeches. Fields accordingly wrote Wallace a letter 
asking for copies of some of his speeches, explaining that he had a 
hobby of filing the public utterances of government officials. In 
reply, Wallace promptly sent him copies of all the speeches he had 
made while in office, and added a personal note of the warmest 
kind. He had always revered Fields' comedy, he said, and hoped 
that he would have, in the future, as many delightful hours of 
enjoyment from it as he had had in the past. Thereafter, Fields' 
attitude toward Wallace and all vice-presidents was guarded. He 
seemed to lose interest in the project with Pegler, and whenever 
he heard anybody damn Wallace, he would say, "Well, now, I 
wouldn't go that far. Mr. Wallace is a highly intelligent man, a 
sound man in many ways." 

Fields' favorite dictation was done in collaboration with his 
pal Sam Hardy. They would set up shop in the comedian's study, 

276 



looking very serious, and send for Magda Michael. Then, with- 
out changing expression, they would dictate horrifying letters, 
profane and blasphemous, to the most notable figures in the land. 
It is tragic, Miss Michael feels, that these scenes were lost to 
posterity. Fields and Hardy played them with all the artistic 
finesse at their command, and each sharpened the other's skill. 
"Sit down, will you, Miss Michael?" Fields would ask gently, his 
tone full of significance. "Thank you, Mr. Fields," she would 
reply, with a good idea of what was coming. Fields, wearing his 
bathrobe, its pockets stuffed, as usual, with thousand-dollar bills, 
would shuffle through his papers, then consult Hardy in an under- 
tone. 

"Do you have those notes we prepared?" 

Hardy was an impressive-looking man, and his demeanor on 
these occasions would automatically have got him bids to many 
corporate boards. "I believe I returned them to you, Mr. Fields. 
Some of them were carried over from our last meeting." 

"Ah, yes," Fields would say. "Here they are. Will you take a 
letter, Miss Michael? To Mr. Henry B. Meyer, Moronic Pictures, 
Hollywood, California." He would go on for a few minutes, per- 
haps breaking off for portentous whispered conversations with 
Hardy, then say, "Now, let's see, will you read that back, please?" 

Miss Michael, whose expression also had not altered since the 
session began, would clear her throat bravely and read, "Dear 
Mr. Meyer, you ignorant son of a bitch, I wish to take this op- 
portunity to tell you what I think of your goddamned movies. If 
I ever catch you out on the street, you thieving horse's ass, I'm 
going to break both of your legs. Of all the low-down bas- 
tards You stopped there, Mr. Fields." 

"On bastards?" 

"Yes, Mr. Fields." 

"Read all right so far?" 

277 



W. C. Fields 

"It's very well composed." 

"Punctuation sound throughout? Comma after bitch?" 

"Everything's in order, I believe, Mr. Fields." 

"Then let us continue." 

Fields' and Hardy's repeated attempts to crack Miss Michael's 
composure were unavailing; they finally sent her a telegram 
saying, "We're defeated. We take off our hats to you." 

The comedian used to tell Miss Michael that he'd always 
wanted to be a writer. "What a wonderful trade!" he would say. 
"All you need is your head and paper and pencil." Elaborating 
on his frustration, he said he wanted particularly to be a crusading 
writer. "What would you crusade for, Mr. Fields?" his secretary 
asked, and got an answer like Fowler's on election day. "I'd 
crusade against everything," he said firmly. At other times, his 
urge was to write something "simple." "They overdo everything," 
he complained. "It's all complicated and significant." Although 
he seldom read modern best sellers, or book club selections, he 
read constantly from his old favorites, the English romanticists 
of the last century. To keep abreast of the times, he subscribed to 
several magazines. The New Yorker was one of his special de- 
lights, and he went through each issue of Time, Newsweek and 
the Saturday Evening Post. 

He loved the trappings of writing. His ritual with Miss Michael, 
on days when he was to work on a script or write something else, 
made him feel important. Humming cheerfully, he would lay 
things out, either on his desk or in a lawn swing where he liked 
to work. His style was extravagant, florid, influenced in large 
measure by Dickens, whom he knew by heart. "Despite his love 
of simplicity, he could never say, 'Hit him on the head,' " says 
Miss Michael. "He always had to make it 'Conk him on the 
noggin.' " 

Some time before his death he was working on two major 

278 



writing projects. One was a movie satire called Grand Motel, 
with which she was helping him, though they were not getting 
very far — Fields kept trying to switch the locale to a delicatessen. 
The other was an article for a magazine which had asked for his 
views as to how to end the war. Fields, in all seriousness, was 
expounding in careful prose his long-cherished plan to put the 
ringleaders of each country in the Rose Bowl and let them fight 
it out with sockfuls of dung. It was Miss Michael's theory (which 
proved to be correct) that the piece was not likely to get pub- 
lished. 

Only infrequently did Fields' real comic genius shine through 
his writing. For the most part his material had a tendency to 
sink progressively deeper into the ridiculous, shedding all mean- 
ing, and most of its humor, in the process. He wrote one book, 
Fields for President, which ran serially in This Week, and one 
chapter of which, My Views on Marriage, was reprinted in sev- 
eral collections, such as Tales for Males, edited by Ed and Pegeen 
Fitzgerald, the radio breakfast clubbers. After a long, wheezy 
passage about how he had once tried to impress a woman named 
Abigail Twirlbaffing (by playing "The Whistler and His Dog" 
backward on a cornet) he outlined a daily regimen for model 
wives, one which he genuinely approved. It went as follows : 

7 to 8 a.m. — Arise quietly, shake down furnace, stoke it, pre- 
pare breakfast — eggs exactly four minutes, two lumps in the 
Java. 

8 to 9 — Awake husband gently, singing sotto voce. My prefer- 

ences would be "Narcissus" or "Silent Night." 

9 to io — Drive husband to station, do marketing for dinner, 
and be sure not to order anything husband might decide to 
have for lunch. 

io to 12 — Mow lawn, wash clothes, iron husband's shirts, 
press his suits, paint screens, weed garden, swat flies. 

279 



W. C. Fields 

12 to 2 — Clean cellar, wash windows, tidy house, beat rugs. 

2 to 2 : 1 5 — Eat simple lunch. 

2:15 to 5:30 — Spade garden, darn socks, wash Rover, put 

up jelly, polish car, burn rubbish, wash woodwork, paint 

garage, clean side walls of tires. 
5:30 to 7 — Drive to station for husband, shake cocktails, 

cook dinner, serve dinner, wash dishes. 
7:00 to 12 — Keep busy — keep smiling — for, as every man 

knows, the husband is tired. 

The book, published by Dodd, Mead & Company, had only a 
moderate sale. Fields mentioned it wistfully in a note in October 
of 1 94 1 to Gene Fowler: "I received a letter just this morning 
from Mr. Dodd saying he did not think it would be wise to re- 
issue my book, which has a great deal to do with liquor. You very 
wisely shunned the horrid stuff in your classic on Barrymore." 

Unencouraged by his success with books, Fields threw his best 
literary effort into his letter writing, which was marked by the 
same majestic hyperbole that characterized his other literary 
works. "Dear Dago," he usually addressed missives to La Cava, 
and in one of them, in 1937, he spoke of dining with Fowler and 
his "unholy family." Fowler's youngest son, Bill, Fields said, 
smoked black cigars and drank whisky until it ran out of his ears. 
His daughter, the letter went on, chewed tobacco, and spit to- 
bacco juice on Fields' clean shirt front, and the eldest son "tried 
to roll me for my poke." In a letter to Fowler, when the comedian 
was in a sanitarium, Fields commented on a tidal wave which had 
recently struck the California coast. Their mutual friend, La 
Cava, said Fields, passed over his cottage and dropped a bottle 
saying he was headed for San Gabriel dam. He had a couple of 
"oars," according to Fields, and was doing his best with them. 

Dictating and probing his lawn with the spyglass kept Fields 
content through many a dull day. He wrote a lot of letters, but 

280 



he seldom spotted interlopers, to his great regret. On one memora- 
ble afternoon he brought into focus a whole party of men running 
across his front yard. His first instinct was to shout a blood- 
curdling warning and then, if they persisted, to reach for his gun. 
But something in their faces, a strain of desperation, caused him 
to turn and dash down his stairs. For a big man, Fields could 
move with surprising rapidity when he chose ; he scrambled to the 
bottom of the bowl-like slope just as the party were lifting two- 
year-old Christopher Quinn, the son of Anthony Quinn and the 
grandson of Cecil B. De Mille, from his lily pond, upon whose sur- 
face they had seen him floating. White and shaken, Fields sat 
down and held his head in his hands as Quinn heartbrokenly tried 
to revive him. Fields, the parents, the De Milles, and several 
others kept a sad vigil beside the pond long into the twilight, while 
the police tried vainly to return the child to consciousness with a 
pulmotor. 

The next day, Fields took out the toy sailboat, of which he had 
been extremely proud, and burned it in his incinerator. Then he 
drained the water from the pond and never went near it again as 
long as he lived in the house. 



281 



CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX 



F 

JLlEL 



.ields' home life was colorful and robust. He 
enjoyed his household, even when he thought the members were 
after him. For a man who was basically anti-social, he had many 
recreations. High on his list was picnics. He was at his sharpest 
when organizing an outdoor jaunt. On these occasions all his 
caution about money vanished; everything he did was in the 
richest tradition of Diamond Jim Brady. Miss Michael recalls one 
idea the comedian had for a trip northward up the coast. It was 
a fine, blue morning, and he had, for a change, slept soundly. He 
came downstairs early, drank two double martinis on the terrace, 
then lit into an unusually large beaker of pineapple juice. "Let's 
have a picnic," he said to Miss Michael, Garlotta Monti, and her 
sister, Susie, who had stayed overnight. "I'll tell the chauffeur to 
tune up the big Lincoln." 

He began to bustle around giving orders and urging everybody 
to hurry. "He had to do everything right now/ 3 Miss Michael 
says. "Once he had an idea, he couldn't put it off for a second. 
Even if he'd decided to buy some bud vases, he had to get in the 
car and go right after them." Within a few minutes he had his 
colored cook, Dell, laying out big wicker picnic hampers, making 
sandwiches, hard-boiling eggs, and stuffing celery with Roquefort 

282 



cheese. He himself got out his ice buckets, including a red one 
that was often referred to in newspaper accounts of his drinking, 
and filled them. He had a built-in refrigerator in the silver-plated 
Lincoln, but he wanted to take no chances of running short. 
When the ice buckets were in shape, he unlocked his liquor room 
(which was then secured by two iron bars and four padlocks) 
and carried down a case of Lanson '28. He added to the cham- 
pagne several bottles of gin, half-a-dozen bottles of imported bur- 
gundy, and half-a-dozen bottles of a fine, dry sauterne. Fields 
disliked sweet wines. He put a case of beer in the Lincoln's re- 
frigerator, then had his chauffeur drive him and the three girls to 
the Vendome, a fancy catering establishment. 

He bought about a hundred dollars 5 worth of black caviar, 
pate de jois gras, anchovies, smoked oysters, baby shrimps, 
crab meat, tinned lobster, potted chicken and turkey, several 
cheeses, including a soft yellow Swiss cheese he was especially fond 
of, and some strong cheeses like Liederkranz and Camembert, a 
big bottle of Grecian olives, and three or four jars of glazed fruit. 
Back home, his cook had made sandwiches out of water cress, 
chopped olives and nuts, tongue, peanut butter and strawberry 
preserves, and deviled egg and spiced ham. She had also baked 
both an angel food and a devils food cake. "What we've missed 
we'll pick up on the road," Fields said, and he ushered the three 
girls to the car, which the chauffeur had rubbed down with a 
chamois and vacuumed on the inside. 

Fields sat in front. In the glove compartment he kept his mar- 
tini glass, which he passed back every half-hour or so for a refill. 
They drove up Hollywood Boulevard, cut over to Sunset and 
followed the winding, busy artery through Beverly Hills, past 
the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Westwood turnoff, Sepulveda, and 
into Pacific Palisades. The chauffeur, by direction, drove slowly, 
so that Fields could point to many features of interest, including 

283 



W. C. Fields 

the homes of movie notables, and damn them all. Instead of 
following Sunset through Pacific Palisades, they turned left at 
Chautauqua and followed the steep hill down into Santa Monica, 
where they picked up the beach road and headed north toward 
Santa Barbara. It was ten o'clock now and the sun was high 
overhead ; the first bathers were making their nests on the beach. 
A light but steady breeze had brought out scores of sailboats, some 
of them with red, yellow, or blue sails, and altogether it looked 
like a perfect day for an outing. 

Passing Malibu, Fields spotted Gregory La Cava in front of his 
beach house, watering his insatiable lawn, and pulled up long 
enough to call him "a Dago bum" and offer him a martini, 
which La Cava refused with an exclamation of deep disgust. 
Fields waved amiably, cursed him some more, and they drove on. 
They had a late lunch in a grove just outside Santa Barbara, be- 
side the ocean. For their table he picked a lot of wild flowers, or 
semi-wild, since the municipality had planted them several years 
before with some hope of permanency, and he walked around as 
they ate, exclaiming on the beauties of nature. He had opened a 
bottle of champagne, and after the others had sipped a glass or 
two, he finished it. Before they left, he went down to the 
sand, where he pointed out the loathsome surf, as if he were ex- 
hibiting some natural phenomenon for the first time, and de- 
scribed in detail his sapping employment as a drowner at Atlantic 
City. 

Driving back into Santa Barbara, they decided that the after- 
noon was too far advanced to continue in comfort, so they stayed 
overnight, Fields engaging a suite for everybody at the Biltmore. 
They dined in the hotel that evening and went to a movie, a 
Western, one of the few kinds in which he could find no trace of 
competitiveness. On this night he even made the expansive obser- 
vation that the comedian, an elderly whiskerando whose sole 

284 



comic device was directing tobacco juice at a spittoon which rang 
like a gong, was "a terribly funny fellow." What this opinion 
meant, as his companions realized, was that he had analyzed the 
tobacco-juice trick and felt that nothing important would ever 
come of it. 

Fields got everybody up early the next morning by rapping on 
their doors and calling out, to the indignation of other guests, 
that "we've got a big day ahead." They were on the road not 
long after sunrise, again heading north, into the big redwood 
country. In this precocious garden patch Fields tarried for hours, 
studying the trees, quizzing the guides, buying literature, and 
boning up on statistics, which he intended to use later on Bob 
Howard. They had another drawn-out picnic, in the course of 
which he undertook, on the sly, to carve their initials on one of 
the giants. But the project was too tiresome ; he gave it up. They 
drove on to San Francisco. There, as in Santa Barbara, he got 
them all hotel suites, at the St. Francis. Then he consulted a 
travel office, to get a list of civic attractions and work out an 
itinerary. During the following day the party visited most of the 
monuments, bridges, public buildings, pieces of high ground, 
bronze plaques, and bizarre quarters in the metropolitan area. 
"It's important to stick to the simple things," Fields said. "We 
have nothing finer than our ordinary tourist customs." For some 
reason, he manifested no interest in Alcatraz. 

Their return to Hollywood, down the winding, rugged coast- 
line, was accomplished in luxurious torpor. The sun was hot, the 
motion and the springs of the big car were irresistibly lulling, and 
the ocean with its slow, even rhythm exerted a sedative effect. 
They picnicked in isolated coves; twice they paused for naps on 
shaded banks of sand. So deliciously soothed did Fields apparently 
feel, so removed from the stress of his career, that he began to 
buy gifts for the party at opportune places. "Mr. Fields usually 

285 



W. C. Fields 

bought everything in half-dozen quantities," Miss Michael says. 
"Whenever he found something he liked, he usually felt that he'd 
better get quite a few while they lasted." At Carmel he inexpli- 
cably had the chauffeur pull up beside a big jewelry store, into 
which he proceeded and bought everybody half-a-dozen electric 
clocks. The purchase required a good deal of room ; the chauffeur, 
though grateful and in an excellent position to keep track of the 
time for three or four hundred years, was hard pressed to get the 
bundle into the luggage compartment. The jeweler (who ac- 
knowledged in an aside to one of the group that the store hadn't 
put in such a day since his grandfather, a Spaniard, founded it 
not long after the gold rush) came out to see them off. "Thanks 
a lot, Mr. Fields," he kept saying. "Gome in again — we've got a 
nice line of fountain pens, desk sets, silver-mounted brushes " 

For reasons best known to himself, Fields preferred to maintain 
a fiction of anonymity. "My name," he interrupted testily, "is 
Oglethorpe P. Bushmaster, of Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania. I 
am not acquainted with anyone by the name of Fields." 

"Of course, of course, Mr. Bushwhacker," cried the jeweler, 
noting the California license plates. "Come back again, Mr. 
Fields. We also got some nice loving cups, dinner trays, carving 
sets, knock down a nice cut-glass centerpiece " 

"Bushmaster!" roared Fields, and to his chauffeur, "Drive on!" 

When they got home, Fields told the group that, as picnics 
went, it had been very satisfactory, almost as good as the one he 
had gone on years before when he left Long Island in the middle 
of the night and regained consciousness in Ocala, Florida. 

Often, after an expensive sortie, and especially if he weren't 
working, Fields felt a strong financial reaction. He would examine 
the household accounts, make a lot of mysterious figures in a 
notebook, and then announce, with terrible gravity, that "we've 
got to cut down around here." His favorite expression to describe 

286 



the sudden reversal in his fortunes was, "We're scraping the bot- 
tom of the barrel." At the time of these utterances he had about a 
million dollars in cash lying idle in various banks. Nevertheless, 
the day after his return from the San Francisco picnic he was 
crouched in the shrubbery again, on this occasion checking up on 
the chauffeur. The comedian had a small secretary's memo pad, 
upon which he kept track of all his cars' mileage. Noting a big 
jump in the figures for the silver-plated Lincoln (possibly as a 
result of the picnic) he said of the chauffeur to another servant, 
"That bird's using those cars for a taxi service and by God it's 
got to stop!" Sure enough, around eleven o'clock he saw the 
chauffeur step quietly to the garage, start up the station wagon, 
and drive off. Fields checked his watch and waited. The man was 
gone eighteen minutes, just enough time to pick up a fare on 
Hollywood Boulevard and deliver it to, say, the Beverly Hills 
Hotel. As the car turned into the garage, Fields skipped out with 
a wild look in his eye. He held up one hand and said, "Ha!" 

"Sir?" said the chauffeur, applying the brakes. 

"Big tip?" 

"Pardon me?" asked the chauffeur. 

"Exactly where have you been?" said Fields. 

"Cook asked me to pick up three cans of sardines and a loaf of 
pumpernickel," said the chauffeur, exhibiting a basket. 

"Sardines, hey?" said Fields keenly. 

"Yes, sir." 

"What brand?" 

The chauffeur examined the cans and said, "Norwegian Little 
Dandies — packed in mustard." 

"What store?" 

"Fleishhacker's Friendly Delicatessen." 

Fields made some rapid calculations on his pad; then he said, 
"All right this time — drive on." He went up to check the story 
with the cook, and was chagrined to find nothing actionable. 

287 



W. C. Fields 

Carlotta Monti supervised the buying and much of the prepa- 
ration of food in the Fields household. Her genius in this line was, 
and is, exceptional ; since his death she has acted as special kitchen 
overseer for a number of first-grade restaurants. In consequence 
of her ministrations the comedian's meals were always gourmet's 
delights, although he himself did no more than nibble at them. 
Miss Monti and Miss Michael also helped him decorate rooms, 
an enterprise for which he had great enthusiasm. His bedroom 
was done in blue, his favorite color. They went on expeditions to 
pick out drapes, at which times Fields bargained shrewdly, dis- 
playing expert knowledge of textures, dyes, and other important 
features. The centerpiece of his bedroom was an enormous four- 
poster, which Miss Monti bought him. Because of his cussedness 
with the landlord, his screens gave out, and neither he nor the 
landlord would buy new ones. For a few weeks bugs came and 
went freely through gaping, rusted-out holes in the wire. Fields 
then conceived the idea of replacing the wire with cheesecloth, 
to the raucous scorn of Bob Howard. "It won't work," the trainer 
told him. "The first good rain will fix them." Fields went ahead 
and bought about fifty yards of cheesecloth and spent several days 
tacking it up around his windows. The makeshift screens became 
a symbol of the striving between him and Howard. Fields won; 
they remained steadfast in the stormiest weather, and he found 
some way to allude to them in every argument with Howard. 

During the fourteen years Miss Monti and the comedian knew 
each other, they interrupted their friendship several times. Like 
all the great attachments of history, theirs was bumpy. Fields had 
undergone certain hardships with female companions; he was 
wary of encroachments. Miss Monti sang, a circumstance that 
bothered Fields terribly. She spent hours taking auditions, con- 
sulting band leaders, practicing arias, and talking about music. 
He often asked her to give it all up, and at the same time he 

288 



begged her to quit eating peppers, something else that irritated 
him. He once mentioned both of those annoyances, which he re- 
garded as about equally aggravating, in a letter to her when, 
under the name of Ramona Rey, she was taking time out to sing 
with a band in Santa Barbara. "I'm sorry I get excited when I 
talk to you on the phone about singing," he said. "You have 
made up your mind to sing and eat peppers because you like them 
and to hell with the consequence, and why I should interfere with 
you I do not know unless it is that I am cuckoo." 

Fields' communications to Miss Monti were filled with both 
lectures and endearments. He began one of them by saying that 
here was another of those "schoolmarm letters." Then he went on 
to denounce her indicated plan to sing for soldier and sailor 
camps, calling it an adventure of exhibitionism and saying that 
he had a "deeper interest" in her. At the end of the exhibitionism, 
he said, he wished to know that she would have a place to eat and 
sleep in case something terrible happened to him — something 
terrible meaning "kicking the bucket." As the letter progressed, 
Fields' interest took a paradoxical twist, for he announced that 
he was having his bank discontinue her weekly payment of 
twenty-five dollars. Instead, he said, he was going to deposit 
twenty-five dollars in her account until he thought it was time to 
cease. Her singing in "saloons," he went on, was a more expen- 
sive hobby than playing golf, polo, "and I was going to say horse 
racing." She repeatedly told him how she suffered, he said, but 
she still continued. She was a masochist — deriving pleasure from 
making herself suffer, and he was not going to be a party to such 
"goddamned nonsense." Fields wound up this billet-doux with a 
melancholy "Amen," adding that if she wished to be a martyr 
she could do so at her own expense, and signed himself "Father 
Favania Fields." 

289 



W. C. Fields 

There are few samples extant of Fields letters which the writer 
signed by pen with his right name. He had superstitions about 
affixing his name to documents of any sort; usually he contrived 
a humorous alias or nickname. Even though his stationery — a gay 
blue like his bedroom — had a white longhand "W. C. Fields" en- 
graved diagonally across the top, the name at the bottom often 
turned out to be something quite baffling. He was represented by 
several different handles to Miss Monti. One of his favorites was 
"Continental Man," which was appended to letters in which he 
addressed her as "Dear Chinese People." He was also fond of 
"Continental Claude," "Continental Person," and "The Great 
Man." For telegrams, Fields generally used the name "Ampico 
J. Steinway," badly confusing a telegraph girl in his neighbor- 
hood, who always recognized him if he came into the office. With 
wires of a straightaway, serious nature, such as "Leaving today. 
See you Monday," he would wind up, with a delicate flourish, 
"Ampico J. Steinway," and eye her belligerently, as if inviting 
her to make something out of it. "Your address, Mr. Steinway?" 
she would ask, and he'd say, "2015 De Mille Drive." 

"The same as Mr. W. C. Fields?" 

"He's my butler," the great man would reply, and sometimes 
give her a nickel tip. 

Miss Monti and Miss Michael, between them, kept his house 
in order and made his life much easier. For long periods he would 
refuse invitations and confine his recreation to quiet dinners at 
home, or drives in his cars. The family dinners often included 
Bob Howard and his wife and Fields' occasional agent, Charlie 
Beyer, and his wife. "Mr. Fields got a great many invitations to 
go out," Miss Michael says. "He always accepted them, at first. 
Then, as the time approached, he got cold feet and began to 
think up ways to get out of them." Fearful of offending anybody, 
he usually presented, in the end, as many as six or seven excuses, 

290 



most of them conflicting. They went out by various means. A day 
or two before the event, he might call up, in a faint, hoarse voice, 
and say he had just contracted double pneumonia and wasn't ex- 
pected to live until morning. The next day, still worrying, he 
would send a telegram saying he had been called to Mobile, 
Alabama, on business and wouldn't be back until spring. Before 
the time of the function arrived, he always had Magda Michael 
telephone and add something even more fantastic. Once his 
lawyer asked him to speak before the local Bar Association. Fields 
was flattered; he said immediately, in his most expansive drawl, 
"Why, I'd be glad to — used to be a member of the Bar myself, 
always had a warm spot for it." When the lawyer left, Miss 
Michael said, "Mr. Fields, you know you have no intention of 
making that speech." 

"Nonsense," he said. "I'm going upstairs to write it right now." 
He scratched around at his desk for a couple of days, then he 
began to get anxious. Miss Michael stood by watching, offering 
no suggestions, curious to see how long he would hold out before 
running up the distress signals. On the second day before the 
meeting, he came to her and said, "I guess I'm just a worthless 
old son of a bitch. I can't make that speech — I'd be scared stiff." 

"All right," she told him, "I'll get you out of it, but next time 
why don't you say no right at the start?" 

"I'll do it, I'll do it," he agreed. "That's the way to handle 
these things." 

She telephoned the lawyer and informed him that Fields was 
down with a serious case of influenza, but Fields, listening in the 
next room, sang out, "Tell him I'll make it at next month's meet- 
ing without fail!" 

He liked to take Miss Monti and Miss Michael in the big 
Lincoln and park near the corner of Hollywood and Vine, where 
they could watch the people. He would keep up a running corn- 
er 



W. C. Fields 

mentary for hours on the citizens that passed before their view. 
His remarks were wholly uncomplimentary. "See that fat one," 
he'd say, "the old girl with the coal bucket on her head and the 
bundle under her arm? You know what's in that bundle? Lime. 
She's killed her husband, the poor devil had been working for 
forty years to keep her in ugly hats, and she conked him with an 
andiron two hours ago and put him in the bathtub. Now tonight, 
when it's good and dark, she'll drag him out in the back and bury 
him. For two cents I'd call a policeman. Oh, oh, here comes 
something — Godfrey Daniel! look at that beaver! Ten to one 
that bastard's wanted by the FBI . . ." 

While Fields' characterizations of the people on the streets, and 
particularly the women, were uniformly scurrilous, he could form 
tender, disinterested attachments. Of one young married couple 
that called at his house, he kept saying, "Now aren't they cute? 
I certainly do enjoy seeing them together." He invited them back 
several times to the family dinners, and was gallant to both the 
bride and groom. "He would compliment the girl on little things 
about her clothes," says Miss Michael. "Mr. Fields often sur- 
prised women by being noticing about things men seldom see, and 
of course they liked it." In a few months, when the girl had a 
baby, he loaded her hospital room with flowers. "I'm going to 
keep an eye on that youngster," he told his household. "With 
nice parents like that, he's bound to go someplace." 

"I think Mr. Fields saw something clean and simple about the 
couple he would have liked for himself, if things had turned out 
differently," Miss Michael felt. He was out in his flower garden 
a year later when he got news that the baby, who had meningitis, 
had died. He grieved for weeks, and on the following Mother's 
Day he suffered torments about the propriety of sending the 
young bride flowers. "Flowers are for the living," he said to Miss 
Michael, as he insisted many times on other occasions. He finally 

292 



ordered four dozen yellow roses and sent them to the couple, with 
a card saying, "Thinking of you both on this Mother's Day." 
They called him up that evening; he left the phone blowing his 
nose and complaining loudly about "a rotten connection" — one 
of his regular peeves. 

Fields' agonies over the chances of hurting people's feelings 
sometimes assumed strange proportions. J. Edgar Hoover, the 
head of the G-men, once asked permission to call, and Fields, 
when he arrived, was deeply impressed. Over a long evening they 
exchanged priceless discussions of their professions. Hoover's 
composure was not at all jarred by the fact that Fields, who had 
trouble with unridiculous names, kept calling him "Herbert." 
Later, when the comedian realized his mistake, he stewed about 
possible remedial steps. He started several explanatory letters, 
switched to telegrams, tore them up, and finally asked Magda 
Michael's advice. "I'd just forget it," she told him. "I'm sure 
Mr. Hoover didn't give it a thought." Fields seemed relieved, but 
he hoped Hoover would call again, "so I can relieve him of the 
Presidency." 

The emotional implications of Christmas bothered Fields; he 
pretended to detest it. As a rule, he announced several days be- 
forehand that he was going to be "away." He wanted no fuss 
made. But as the neighborhood took on its colors and sounds of 
the season, he fell uneasily into line. One Christmas on De Mille 
Drive, his household gave him a party. "You always pay the bills," 
they told him. "This year we'll take care of everything." They 
got fine wines and food, decorated a handsome tree, and 
bought him several costly presents. All day long he was bursting 
with pride. He even ate two helpings of turkey, by way of celebra- 
tion, and sang Christmas carols far into the night. "You know," 
he kept saying afterward, "that was fun. That was the best Christ- 
mas I can remember." But the next year he was as quick as ever 

293 



W. C. Fields 

to damn the "mawkish festivity" of a holiday which touched 
some wellspring of sentiment that he preferred not to acknowl- 
edge. 

When Fields was feeling up to par, he enjoyed occasional recre- 
ations with his male friends. He, Fowler, La Cava, Roland 
Young, John Decker, Jack Oakie, the Barrymores, and a few 
others, often went to the West coast football games; in fact, 
largely for this purpose he bought a trailer, with a built-in bar 
and refrigerator. The group would load up, roll off to some place 
like the Rose Bowl, set up on a handy stretch of greensward, and 
approach football in a proper, civilized spirit. They were de- 
voted students of the game. They would go up in the stands and 
watch a few plays, then come down and take them apart over 
several rounds of a popular tipple. Guy Kibbee, who had a trailer, 
too, liked to follow along and park beside them. Rather than 
drink, he preferred to place his spectator emphasis on food, and he 
would join them, his hands filled with fancy sandwiches, cakes 
and pies. Kibbee had a tent which they would pitch, leaving the 
flaps up on especially hot days. 

This sporting group also attended the fights, in Jim Jeffries , 
Barn, out in San Fernando Valley. Fields watched the papers 
carefully for announced matches of his favorite pugilist, a 
scrawny, attenuated man named Claude Nesselrode, who seemed 
to spend an unconscionable amount of time on the canvas. The 
comedian would call Fowler, say, "Claude's fighting tonight," 
and Fowler would reply, "Who's his opponent?" 

"The Burmese Crusher." 

"What's the odds?" 

"Morning line was 38 to 1 against Claude." 

"Well," Fowler would say, "we'd better go out and give him a 
hand." 

294 



During the afternoon the trailer would be iced and provisioned, 
and evening saw the happy band rolling toward another feature 
attraction in Fields' calvacade of sports. Once at the arena, they 
would get ringside seats, after some preliminary banter with Jim 
Jeffries, who had mixed feelings about their patronage. The old- 
time champion liked them all, but he sometimes wondered if they 
had the reverent regard for the game that ringsiders ought to 
have. For example, as their hero came stilting down the aisle they 
might chant, "N-E-S, Nes; S-E-L, Sel; R-O-D-E, Rode— that's 
the way to spell it, here's the way to yell it— NESSELRODE !" 

"Claude," Fields would tell the beanpole, having left his seat 
to creep to the fighter's corner, "play it smart. Let him hit you for 
a few rounds. Tire him out. Keep coming in — every time he 
thinks he's got you, shove that chin forward again." 

Nesselrode's chances were ordinarily quite slight, but they were 
seldom improved by his cheering section. By the time he reached 
the center of the ring, his eyes were glazed and he was pretty well 
marked up mentally. 

Undoubtedly Fields' happiest sport was golf. He was an expert 
player, whose game was greatly improved by cheating. His most 
frequent opponent was La Cava, but they both belonged to a 
little group known as the Divot Diggers, whose members kept try- 
ing new courses. Fields' and La Cava's friendship was strained on 
the golf course. They both went around in the eighties, and they 
bet heavily. La Cava believes that, during the years they played 
together, Fields availed himself of every advantage possible to a 
competitive golfer. To begin with, he kept careful track of La 
Cava's professional life and always called about golf when the 
director had just finished a picture and was physically and emo- 
tionally exhausted. In this way, Fields was able to win two Lincoln 
sedans from La Cava. 

On the course itself Fields had many devices to protect his in- 
terests. He always carried a pocketful of change, which he rattled 

295 



W. C. Fields 

noisily when La Cava was putting. He was also given to par- 
oxysms of coughing and wild, unexepected slaps at non-existent 
flies. As La Cava drove off the tee, Fields could usually be found 
scrubbing up a ball with raspy, irritating vigor. Of all the golfers 
who have ever played the game, he probably got the most con- 
sistently good lies. If his ball was in a hole or other disadvan- 
tageous spot, he would point to a fictitious airplane then roll the 
ball over with his club. His juggling grace enabled him to avoid 
being caught. One day, smarting under this style of play, La Cava 
blew up and said, "Look here, damn you, we'll play these things 
where they lie from now on. I'm going to get two caddies — one 
for me and another to watch you." 

Fields said he would get two caddies himself. They returned 
to the clubhouse, hired the additional caddies, and started out 
again. From the first tee La Cava's ball hopped into a gopher 
hole. "What am I supposed to do about that?" he asked. 

"Too bad, too bad," said Fields. "You'll have to play it." 

La Cava took a number-seven iron and in eight strokes un- 
earthed the ball, together with some old bones and rock forma- 
tions. He finished the hole in thirteen, in a very dusky humor. 
However, two holes later Fields sliced over a fence that marked 
the club's boundary and into the city dump. They located his ball 
in the center of some discarded bedsprings. 

"I'll throw out and count a stroke," he said. 

"You'll shoot out if it takes till midnight," said La Cava. 

Fields pointed up, cried, "Wild geese!" and rattled the springs 
with his club. 

"Lying two," called La Cava cheerfully. 

Fields broke a new mashie on the bedsprings without moving 
the ball, and went back to the clubhouse, where La Cava found 
him an hour or so later, seated in a deck chair on the lawn and 
with a colored waiter standing by holding martinis. 

296 



On one of the group's golfing trips, to Del Monte, La Cava 
made the mistake of sharing a room with Fields. The two were 
to be matched against each other the next day. After dinner, La 
Cava took a walk around the grounds, then returned to their 
room, planning to get some sleep, so as to be fresh and in top form 
for tomorrow. Fields was seated in one corner with a washtub full 
of iced beer at his feet. "I got the management to bring this up," 
he said. "We'll make a night of it." 

"We'll do nothing of the kind," said La Cava. "I engaged this 
room to sleep in." 

"Well, I'm going to drink beer in my half," Fields told him. 
Because of his insomnia, he needed little sleep, and he had fixed 
on a sure way to get a good handicap. As La Cava tossed and 
turned, Fields came and went throughout the night, always 
carrying a beer bottle. He exclaimed rapturously over the dawn. 
"Get up, get up !" he yelled at the director. "What a sky !" 

"Would you mind shutting up?" La Cava said. "I haven't 
had an hour's sleep all night." 

"See the sunrise," said Fields. "You're a movie director, you're 
supposed to like beauty, get up and look at the sunrise." 

"Describe it to me," said La Cava. 

During the match that followed, La Cava was obliged to sit 
down for ten-minute stretches under palm trees. He was beaten 
handily. 

Fields' sporting group had a sad but interesting time when 
John Barrymore died in May of 1942. The family arranged a big 
funeral, as befitted a public figure of Barrymore's stature, and 
the undertaking company in charge spared no pains to see that 
the last, bereaved tribute should be memorable. Nunnally John- 
son, who attended, recalls a peculiar cleavage among the mourn- 
ers. On one side of the chapel sat the Barrymore family and 

297 



W. C. Fields 

certain elderly friends, people long devoted to restrained behav- 
ior; on the other side were grouped the departed's rowdy boon 
companions. There was evidence of hostility between the two 
factions. One was in favor of preserving the traditional solemnity 
of funerals, the other made known its wishes audibly from time 
to time with statements like, "Let's step outside for a drink — 
Jack'd want it that way," and "We've got to carry on!" 

"The first thing I saw when I walked in was old John Carra- 
dine sittin' there rockin' back and forth and keenin' so you could 
hear him all over the church," says Johnson, who speaks with a 
slight, attractive Southern accent. 

At the conclusion of the service, Fowler, who was close to the 
Barrymore family and had attended in a mortician's limousine, 
walked outside and bumped into Fields. 

"Don't be a sucker," hissed the comedian, motioning with dis- 
taste toward the lugubrious black carrier. "Ride back in my car 
with me." They got into the rear seat of Fields' Lincoln, and the 
chauffeur wheeled slowly into the long line of moving vehicles. 
Fowler was impressed by the fact that, although the day was ex- 
cessively warm, Fields had most of the rear interior, including 
their feet, protected by a fur lap robe. When the procession had 
gone about a mile down the avenue, Fields leaned forward and 
said to the chauffeur, "This will do." 

"Here, sir?" the man asked. 

"The vacant lot off to the right." 

They pulled up and Fields threw aside the robe, revealing a 
large icebox containing beer, bottles of gin and vermouth, and 
several tall tumblers autographed by movie stars and bearing 
the legend, "Earl Carroll's Restaurant." 

"What will you have to drink, a beer or a martini?" he said. 

"Both," replied Fowler. 

"A very wise decision," said Fields. 

298 






The comedian made the martinis by pouring gin and vermouth 
into the tumblers and shaking the mixture against the palm of 
his hand. He made two double ones, opened two beers, then told 
the chauffeur to drive on. As they stopped for a light, a pair of 
patrolmen in a prowl car, bent on enforcing the Los Angeles law 
against drinking in automobiles, pulled up beside them. Fields 
leaned out of a window and regarded them sternly. He said, 
"Sorry, my fine public servants, but I haven't enough of this 
nectar to pass about willy-nilly." To his chauffeur he shouted, 
"Drive on!" The patrolmen, confused, let them go. 

At the next stop light they drew up beside one of the under- 
taker's machines and noticed Earl Carroll, a lone, huddled 
mourner, seated in the back. 

Fields said to Fowler, "There is an old program boy. I've 
known him for years. What is your pleasure?" 

"I'd offer a man like that a drink," said Fowler. Fields nodded 
and they called to Carroll, who climbed out of the limousine 
with great alacrity and into Fields' car. Not bothering to greet 
him in any way, Fields mixed a third martini in one of the showy 
tumblers. Carroll took it, examined it gravely, and drank the 
cocktail without comment. They continued down the street in 
the sun. Near his mansion, Carroll said, "Come and have a drink 
with me." Once inside, he went to his bar and mixed some mar- 
tinis, which he poured into three beautiful crystal glasses. Hand- 
ing the glasses to his guests, he observed that "These weren't 
stolen." 

From Carroll's they went to the home of John Decker. By a 
remarkable coincidence, Decker made drinks for them, and for 
Tony Quinn, Herbert Marshall, Roland Young, and several 
others, in glasses which bore the inscription "Club Eugene." 
Fields felt much better; later on he confided that before he saw 

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W. C. Fields 

Decker's glasses he had been on the point of returning Carroll's 
tumblers. 

That night on the way home he stopped by Fowler's briefly, 
and the next morning Fowler noticed that he had left a new hat 
— an expensive black fedora, size seven and a half, from Des- 
mond's in Beverly Hills — hanging on a peg in a closet off Fowler's 
study. Informed by telephone where the hat was, Fields said, "I 
left it there on purpose. I bought it for the funeral and I never 
want to see it again." 

It still hangs there, quite dusty, not having been disturbed from 
that day to this. 



300 



CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN 



I 



n the middle 1930s Fields' rocklike constitution 
began to crumble. The prodigious quantities of liquor which he 
consumed could not have failed to take their toll. His resistance 
to disease weakened, various of his internal organs became im- 
paired, and at length, in 1935, he went to Seboba Hot Springs, a 
health resort, for a season of recovery. He had been ill throughout 
the filming of Poppy, an illness brought on when he injured his 
sacroiliac in reaching for an impossible tennis shot on his Encino 
court. His struggles to avoid collapsing on the Poppy sets aroused 
the admiring wonder of everybody making the picture. Oddly 
enough, at these times he tried to perpetuate the myth that he 
was drunk. "I'd rather have people think I was drunk than sick," 
he told director Eddie Sutherland. 

"Bill was only in a few scenes," says Sutherland. "We had to 
use his double, Johnny Sinclair, in everything but the close-ups." 
One scene required Fields to crawl out from under a sink. By this 
time his equilibrium had gone bad and he was scarcely able to 
walk. But he got under the sink, then, with his jaw set, began 
the torturing process of trying to stagger out, half crawling and 
half walking. He couldn't make it. As the others watched, anxious 
not to interfere and hurt his feelings, he got up and fell down 

301 



W. C. Fields 

three times. "Bill," said Sutherland, "let Johnny under there — 
he's an old plumber and knows how it's done." 

"Sure," said Sinclair, "I never really feel at ease anywhere 
else." 

Sinclair played about 75 per cent of the scenes that supposedly 
featured Fields: Fields authentically appeared in the other 25 per 
cent. Though sick, he was no less autocratic, mulish, and irri- 
tating. He had fixed on a new word (he often carried a pocket 
dictionary to look up words with which he was unfamiliar), and 
he had adopted "redundancy" as having agreeable possibilities 
of articulation. To the dismay of the script writers, about every 
fifth line he lifted his hat and, with a pleasing sneer, cried, "Par- 
don my redundancy," apropos of nothing. Fields was in this 
period approaching an almost fatal illness, and he had never been 
funnier. His condescension, the spurious bereavement of a man 
once used to elegance, as he approached a hot-dog stand with 
Rochelle Hudson, was a kind of key to his whole stage character, 
"A little fois gras, something to spread on it?" he asked the count- 
erman, after viewing the naked wiener. And when he heard the 
snarling reply, "What's that, brother?" he hastily exclaimed, 
"Pardon my redundancy," and took a forlorn, ignoble bite. 

Sam Hardy accompanied Fields to Seboba Hot Springs. Both 
Magda Michael and Carlotta went along, too, and arranged 
themselves in cottages at the resort. Fields had been told that the 
continued use of liquor would hamper his recovery, so he stepped 
up his daily consumption about 20 per cent, in an effort to make 
liars out of the doctors. He failed signally. His soul rebelled at 
the necessity for hiring doctors in the first place, and he never 
lost an opportunity to insult them. To the curious press he issued 
bulletins explaining how he passed his time. "I'm preparing a 
movie called The High Cost of Dying/ 3 he was quoted as saying. 
Sam Hardy drove back and forth between Seboba and Holly- 

302 



wood, where he lived with his wife. In his solicitude for his old 
friend he probably gave little thought to his own health. Hardy's 
wife called the resort one morning to say that Sam wouldn't be 
out that day; he was having some pains in his chest. Late that 
night the owner of Seboba Hot Springs walked into Fields' room, 
with a downcast look, and started to speak, but Fields saved him 
the trouble. "Sam Hardy's dead," he said. 

He fretted that he was unable to go to the funeral. He sent 
Magda Michael, and when she returned he wanted details. "How 
did Sam look?" he said. "I hope he had on his blue suit — that 
was his favorite." The comedian seemed relieved that Hardy had 
looked spruce and lifelike, an unusual reaction, since Fields de- 
tested the idea of funerals. Not long afterward, another of his 
old friends, Will Rogers, died in the airplane crash with Wiley 
Post. Fields was hard hit by these two tragedies during his illness. 
He talked about them, and recounted many anecdotes from the 
lives of both men. He kept saying, "You know, the last news- 
paper piece Will wrote before he died was about me." 

As Fields continued to drink, and to disregard other basic rules 
for invalids, his condition worsened, and some weeks later he was 
removed to Riverside Hospital, with a critical case of pneumonia 
and many complications. For a considerable time he lay at the 
point of death, in an oxygen tent, fighting, the physicians thought, 
an uphill and losing battle. In the bleakest hour of his travail, 
several of his intimates — Eddie Sutherland, Fowler, and others — 
came to the hospital. They were admonished to be quiet and were 
admitted to the sickroom. Fields had been unconscious, but he 
suddenly opened his eyes and summoned them with a feeble ges- 
ture of an index finger. The group approached and Sutherland 
leaned forward. "Oh, ye of little faith," whispered the comedian, 
and straightway he began to rally. 

When the pneumonia had subsided, he left Riverside Hospital 

3°3 



W. C. Fields 

for Las Encinas Sanitarium, still a very sick man. He told Magda 
Michael he regretfully must let her go for a while, and she re- 
turned home, but Carlotta Monti stayed with him at the sani- 
tarium for months. At first he was in a private room and with 
two nurses in attendance ; later he was moved to a cottage, where 
Miss Monti could be within call of his bedside. The long addiction 
to alcohol had overtaken him at last. He had many of the tradi- 
tional symptoms of delirium tremens — hallucinations, grotesque 
visitations, nostalgic evocations. Once, as Miss Monti sat holding 
his hands, he screamed that watches were materializing between 
all of his fingers. Much later, when he had recovered, he alluded to 
this fancy in a letter to Miss Monti, taking the opportunity to 
combine it with a lecture on her singing, as usual. He asked if she 
remembered when he was in Las Encinas and suffering from 
paresthesia, then recalled that he had remonstrated with her for 
not gathering up the watches that he believed he was pulling out 
from "betwixt my fingers." The letter went on to thank Miss 
Monti for her kindness in telling him the unvarnished truth 
about his condition, and he said he wanted to "reciprocate" her 
kindness. She had fooled around for five or six years without 
obtaining even "a modicum of success," he said, with the result 
that she had suffered and her friends had suffered with her. 

Fields often made his shortcomings the basis for stern moral 
admonitions to others. At the same time, he never forgot Miss 
Monti's devotion when he was stricken. Among other ways of 
showing his appreciation, he had a doctor flown to her when, a 
year or so afterward, she was on location working in a movie in the 
northern California mountains and was laid low by what was 
diagnosed as chipmunk fever, said to have been the second such 
case in California history. He was acutely grateful for the visits 
and other expressions of loyalty by his friends and acquaintances. 

3°4 



Fields was always similarly grateful for fan letters; he would 
brag about them, and he tried to answer them all personally. Mrs. 
Fowler frequently made cakes and sent them to the sanitarium. 
Dave Chasen took him the choicest edibles of his extravagant 
kitchen; Grady sneaked bottles in to him; and many additional 
well-wishers responded variously. In a letter to Fowler, Fields 
mentioned that Franklin Pangborn had just been out; an at- 
tached clipping, a news photo of an officer of the anti-Negro 
Columbians, bore the penciled comment : "If you do not believe 
in Darwin's theory that man emanated from the animal, look at 
the figure on the left." 

There were times, at Las Encinas, when only reminders of the 
changing moods of nature could soothe him. Perhaps of all the 
natural phenomena, rain pleased him most. He loved rain ; often, 
when he was well, he would go out bareheaded and stand in his 
yard when showers came. Miss Michael believes that rain 
conveyed a feeling of isolation and a sense of mankind's insignif- 
icance to Fields. "He felt that somehow a moratorium was de- 
clared on all his troubles when it was raining," she says. 
California, while a very cornucopia in some other respects, is a 
vexatious place for rain lovers. There are long stretches of each 
year when rain is not only non-existent but many citizens are lay- 
ing bets that it is not likely ever to rain again. Miss Monti over- 
came this deficiency, if deficiency it be, very neatly. She bought 
a garden hose, attached it to a handy tap, and sprayed water on 
his cottage roof. He responded well to the treatment; usually he 
went peacefully to sleep, his mind purged of whatever torments 
were assailing him before the rains came. A little later, when he 
could go outside, she rigged up a lawn umbrella, and while he 
rested beneath it she sat in a chair somewhat removed and pelted 
his retreat with the hose. It made an interesting sight for visitors 

305 



W. C. Fields 

to the spa — the famous comedian reading under his make-believe 
shower, the pretty Mexican near by playing God. 

Both Magda Michael and Charlie Beyer, his agent, went out 
frequently to keep him posted on matters mundane. He was 
always glad to see them, though Beyer sometimes irritated him, as 
he did in other places. The agent had a harmless speech habit, a 
trick of greeting acquaintances with, "Hello, what's new?" and 
Fields regarded it as the essence of foolishness. Beyer would breeze 
into the sanitarium, give an affable, extroverted wave of the hand, 
and cry, "Hello, Bill, what's new?" Fields would rise up from his 
bed of pain and yell, "How the hell would I know, you half-wit? 
I've been in a hospital for three months." He was so incensed that 
he once had Miss Michael bring out a dictaphone, which he 
hooked up in an unobtrusive spot. When Beyer arrived and per- 
formed the inquisitive rite, Fields played the record back to him. 
"Now, how does that sound to you?" he said. 

Fields' relationship with his agent was as peculiar as it was 
with most people who served him. As the comedian saw it, Beyer's 
function was to act as errand boy. Fields kept him hot on the trail, 
if negotiations were afoot, Beyer was obliged to run back and 
forth to the party of the second part and deliver all manner of 
insults from his boss. "He won't take a hundred thousand, he'll 
take two hundred thousand, and he said to tell you that you're a 
goddamned sneak and a cheap grafter" was a typical message 
from Fields. Throughout their association, Fields spent most of 
his time trying to beat Beyer down from the customary 10 per 
cent to five. 

Even when his life was running lowest, Fields retained clear 
fiscal impressions. He was disturbed that his accommodations 
were so costly — at one time he was reputed to be paying the sani- 
tarium $500 a week — and on occasions, after a pathetic rally, he 
would raise his head slightly and gasp, "We're scraping the bot- 

306 



torn of the barrel." Once he dispatched Miss Michael and Beyer 
to a certain office he had rented, under the name of Felton J. 
Satchelstern, wherein lay ten thousand dollars of his capital. 
"Here's the combination," he whispered. "Go to the safe and get 
the money — it's urgent." Mystified but obedient, they drove to 
the hideout and opened the safe. They found various papers — 
prison notices, marked items that Fields intended to blast in let- 
ters, and other mementos of his personal life — but no ten thousand. 
They went back and reported that the bills were missing. "It 
worked," Fields cried feverishly. "The man was telling the truth," 
and he leaned back and laughed till the tears came. It developed 
that the safe had a secret compartment, invulnerable to thieves, 
as advertised by the fellow who sold it. Later on, Fields took Miss 
Michael and Beyer to the office, and after a good deal of mumbo 
jumbo uncovered the cash. 

Though Fields put up a brave show of good spirits at Las 
Encinas, he suffered the tortures of the damned. Miss Michael 
remembers a sad afternoon when Jim Tully was in the sanitarium, 
with the illness that was to end in his death, and was wheeled 
over to visit his old friend. Both men were so sick they had no 
heart for conversation. Tully at length smiled weakly, and Fields 
just nodded in agreement. "I couldn't help thinking," Miss 
Michael says, "that here were these two famous men, with all the 
rewards life could give them, and either one would have given it 
all for a little health and peace." 

At one stage of his illness Fields had a dreadful seizure of poly- 
neuritis. His whole body was sensitized so that the lightest touch 
was torture. It was necessary to chloroform him to cut his finger- 
nails and toenails. Even the weight of a sheet caused him 
agony. A new nurse coming on decided to change his pajamas. 
For some reason, she got mixed up and tried to pull a pillowcase, 
instead of the pajamas, over his feet. Quite naturally the pillow- 

307 



W. C. Fields 

case refused to come up, and she tried to solve the problem by 
yanking it. The pain was so numbing, and the cause so senseless, 
that Fields was more angry than injured. He sat up and gave the 
nurse a cursing so flagrant that he bragged about it forever after- 
ward. "I knew then I was all right," he said later. "I was going 
to get well." 

Convalescent, he began to think again about his work. With 
Miss Michael and Miss Monti he went over script ideas and at 
odd times wrote down scraps of dialogue and skeleton plots. 
Some of the movie people were organizing a radio jubilee for 
Adolph Zukor, and they asked Fields to broadcast from his sick- 
room, a request that started the comedian on a successful venture 
in yet another medium. His voice came over the air with such 
resonance and comic effect that, when he went home in a few 
weeks, the Chase and Sanborn Coffee Company wanted him for 
a series of broadcasts with Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy. 
For two years his asthmatic feuds with Charlie McCarthy were 
an important part of the Sunday night scene, like querulous 
youngsters and cold chicken. 

For the series with Bergen, Fields reportedly got $6500 a week. 
The New York advertising agency that handled the program, 
J. Walter Thompson, sent a radio writer, Dick Mack, out to help 
Fields. Like the other Fields' collaborators, Mack had his troubles. 
He would send a prepared script to Fields' home around the first 
of every week for "editing." But with Fields, editing took the 
form of throwing out all the lines assigned to him and substituting 
creations of his own. He and Mack had spirited wrangles. Fields 
never altered a word in another actor's lines ; his attitude was that 
if that actor wished to trust himself to anybody as freakish as a 
writer, it was on his own head. After the comedian had read the 
script, Mack would drive out to his home and they would square 
off, then go over it together. Rehearsals were held at the studio 

308 



on Saturday and again early Sunday. Fields was driven down by 
his chauffeur, arriving with a retinue of secretaries, butlers, 
nurses, and others, amid great pomp. On Sunday night the 
production staff always displayed agitation over his script, to 
which he clung doggedly. "Any changes, Bill?" they would say, 
and the comedian would reply, "No, I'm going to do it just as it 
is." In an aside to Miss Michael he would add, "We won't show 
the damned thing to them — the hell with them." The production 
people would explain that the final version must be on file at 
"the New York office" before the show. At that stage, Fields had 
no idea what they meant by the New York office, and cared less. 
When it came time to do the program, he just said what he 
pleased, without worrying about J. Walter Thompson, Chase and 
Sanborn, the National Broadcasting Company, or even radio in 
general. By extreme good fortune Bergen was a man with an 
exceptionally nimble mind, and he made out skillfully without 
cues. 

Fields' radio employers had to handle him with kid gloves. As 
he had grown older, his speaking tempo had slowed dcwn, and he 
sent them into prostrations of nervousness by dragging the show. 
When they remonstrated, he would say, as he had said to Mack 
Sennett, "Well, you'd better get yourself another boy." The 
production staff eventually depended upon Magda Michael's 
influence. She could often lead Fields to the trough, and even 
make him drink, by simple tricks of psychology. The basic princi- 
ple of her method was flattery. If she wished to speed him up, she 
first spent ten minutes telling him how faultlessly, how stunningly 
he had done the passage. "It was probably the best reading any- 
one has ever heard on radio," she would say. "You have no idea 
how they admire you." Then she might add, in an elegiac tone, 
"Of course they'd like to make it slower, but I'm inclined to agree 
with you that a trifle more speed might get even more of the 

309 



W. C. Fields 

essential you in it." Fields would nod sagely, muttering, "You're 
right, you're right. The devil with them — we'll speed it up." 

He continually maintained that he was unable to find writers to 
suit him, but he tried to change everything they offered, no mat- 
ter who they were. At one point he was dickering with Bugs Baer, 
who writes the column of newspaper humor, and with Gene 
Fowler, who had no intention of writing for him. In February 
of 1938 he told Baer that "Chase and Sanborn have discovered 
that they are not ruining as many livers as they would like to and 
would like me to run off at the mouth on the radio every Sunday 
for a few months." He wanted Baer and Fowler to "share part 
of the loot" with him, by writing him some ten- or twelve-minute 
scripts. "I'll make them do a thing that hasn't been done on the 
radio to date," Fields said. "I'll make them, at the conclusion of 
the performance, give credit to whosoever has written the ma- 
terial." As usual, he said he'd reserve the right to "collaborate 
upon and edit" the material on its arrival. "My present bite is 
$5000 a week, less commission," he told Baer, and that "would 
net either of you around $1200." 

Why Fields gave the figure $5000 is something of a mystery, 
since his intimates, including Miss Michael, who was compara- 
tively familiar with his finances, agree that his weekly check was 
$6500. In any case, the offer came to nothing, for neither Baer 
nor Fowler, though they loved him, ever wrote him any material. 

Fields' lack of reverence for radio and everything connected 
with it, not excluding the advertising agencies, was notable. He 
was always involved in a squabble over money, material, time, 
personnel, or some additional aspect of his employment. He 
probably couldn't have stayed happy otherwise. In a letter to 
Fowler in 1937, he said that J. Walter Thompson objected to his 
burlesquing "that counterfeit" who talks through one nostril, ad- 
vising child movie actresses not to play squat tag in asparagus 

310 



beds. They also objected, he said, to his references to Walter 
Winchell, on the ground that he was too big to imitate such 
persons. Fields remarked that he didn't know how to take that. 
Later on he told Fowler that he and J. Walter Thompson had 
arrived at a definite agreement, "amenable and compatible to 
either side," which hinged on a colorful, unworkable system by 
which the agency could dispose of its "delicious coffee in its 
hermetically sealed, dated bags." 

Chase and Sanborn and J. Walter Thompson were able to 
swallow Fields' unremitting insults for two years, and after that 
he went over to Lucky Strike, for $7500 a week, out of which 
he was to furnish his own material. Here again he ran into argu- 
ments, the crux of which was that Fields wished to lampoon 
advertisers, somewhat in the manner of Henry Morgan's gibes 
later on. After a series or so of broadcasts for the tobacco people 
he quit radio, mainly because he said it was too much trouble to 
find writers and he was too busy to do the whole job himself. 

Fields lived at the sanitarium off and on until the spring of 
1937. His condition had improved greatly, but his restlessness had 
grown painful. To Fowler in March of that year he telephoned 
that if he were well enough he would write him a funny letter. 
"Every time I get what I think is a funny idea," Fields said, "the 
goddamned croaker sends his bill in with nurses and room rent 
attached. Then Uncle Whiskers sends his insult from Washing- 
ton, claiming everything you've got and an extra pair of pants as 
his share of the season's loot. Sure, I'm a good citizen." 

When he again set up permanently at home, he went over his 
bills with tremendous anxiety. His long illness had been expensive, 
and he fought bitterly with his doctors. One of them, Dr. Jesse 
Citron, finally sued to force Fields to pay his bill of $12,000. The 
comedian considered the charge unreasonably high, and so did 
most of his friends. Thinking it over, he became so outraged that 

3** 



W. C. Fields 

he filed a countersuit of $25,000, maintaining that his recovery 
had been impeded by narcotics Dr. Citron had given him. The 
actions seesawed expensively through the courts, as lawsuits do, 
and if the doctor's original solicitude had been worth $12,000, 
his legal ministrations perhaps canceled the good works out, for 
Fields was obliged to drag into court day after day, though he felt 
wretched and spent. At one point in the proceedings, the lawyers 
and judges expressed an interest in the comedian's income. 
"Come into court with all your records of the past year," they 
told him, or words to that effect. Fields appeared the following 
week without any visible impedimenta, and when he had 
ascended majestically to the stand, they said, "Where are the 
books?" From his pocket he withdrew a used check, on the back 
of which he had penciled a couple of sentences that gave, in a 
general, confused way, what his income had amounted to during 
the year past. Then he eyed the judge vindictively, his manner 
suggesting that he would be pleased to step into the alley and 
fight it out. The judge, who had different ideas, allowed the 
valuable Dr. Citron his $12,000. Fields never got to first base 
with his countersuit about the narcotics. Like many laymen, he 
was hopelessly lost in the dark labyrinth of an archaic legal 
system for tangling the civil affairs of man. 

After the long illness, Fields' sleeping became an acute problem. 
Many nights he never got to sleep at all. His household could 
hear him, pacing the length of his padlocked room, seeking 
fatigue, calming his nerves, fighting the black despair of the in- 
somniac. His discovery of sleeping pills tided him over the worst 
spots. On a little memo pad beside his desk he had written, "First 
pill 9 p.m., second pill 10 p.m., hope for best thereafter." Always 
it was his desire to spend his time profitably, and he read hun- 
dreds of books during the lonesome watches of his sleepless nights. 
As he read, he took detailed notes, largely for the purpose of 

312 



extracting useful ideas. He went through newspapers, marked 
objectionable passages, sometimes pretty well covering the entire 
paper, and made reminders to write letters about them. Some 
nights he scribbled over dozens of sheets with dialogue, which 
he hoped to incorporate into movies. As often as not, he 
tore them all up the next morning. Once in a while, if feeling 
extraordinarily bold, he would arm himself and "make a search" 
of the grounds. During some of these excursions, as he frequently 
did in his room, he conducted a bluffing monologue, to indicate 
that he was not alone and that an intruder, if he didn't cut and 
run, would shortly find himself in a sorry mess. One of the come- 
dian's servants, on a night when the moon was bright, saw him 
tiptoeing along, this time as silent as his shadow behind him, now 
stopping to listen, again feeling around bushes or birdbaths, the 
pistol high in his hand, the accusative nose uptilted at the old, 
familiar angle. 

With Miss Monti and Miss Michael he liked to make week-end 
trips back to Seboba Hot Springs, to rest up and get away from 
his telephone. Because of his patronage, and the publicity it got, 
the place became popular, drawing from the city many other 
people suffering from faulty nerves, and some who hoped to 
acquire faulty nerves by fashionable exposure. Fields resented the 
progress of the resort. "The joint's getting crowded," he began 
to say, repeating his ancient refrain. Though his illness had 
abated, his mind, so long chaffed by sick nerves, was more than 
ever subject to suspicions. One night as he sat on the porch of 
his bungalow, talking to his companions, two prize fighters came 
up and said, "Good evening, Mr. Fields." Their intention, as they 
sought relief from the monotony of their training, was nothing 
more sinister than to observe at close hand a man who had always 
delighted them. Fields, however, construed their presence as a 
blatant plot to kidnap him. He had been expecting it for months, 

3*3 



W. C. Fields 

and he only wondered what had held them up. He jumped up 
nimbly to his feet, ran inside, and came back out with his pistol. 
Aided by Miss Monti and Miss Michael, the fellows persuaded 
him of their harmless design, and Fields relaxed enough to con- 
verse with them for an hour or so, but he kept the pistol cocked 
and ready, on his lap. 

The onset of his illness had brought from New York his wife 
and son, who moved to California, it was said, in order to help 
him in his hour of need. A story had gone around Hollywood, 
and even reached a few newspapers, including the column of 
Leonard Lyons, that Fields had refused his son admittance to his 
home. A visitor to Seboba one week end, William Le Baron, 
sounded Fields out on this rumor. "There wasn't anything to it, 
was there, Bill?" he said, probing gently. 

"An unidentified youth put in an appearance at my gate," 
replied Fields with austerity. 

"What happened?" 

The youth had rung his bell, Fields related with pleasure, and 
had asked to see his father. This request, relayed to the comedian 
by his butler, resulted in the butler's returning to the gate to ask 
for credentials. "I haven't got anything but my driver's license," 
the young man said. 

"I'll take that, sir," the butler told him, and carried it in on a 
salver. 

"He could have forged it," said Fields. "Go back and ask him 
for additional proof." 

"Well, I know he's my father," insisted the visitor a minute 
later. "I know it because I'm his son." 

In the face of this deadly logic, Fields told the butler to admit 
him. "I'll take a look," he said. 

"Hello, Father," cried the young man, when he got inside. 
"How are you feeling?" 

3 J 4 



"Have a drink?" said Fields. 

"Oh, fine, Father. Let's have a nice drink together." 

"What' 11 it be?" asked Fields. 

"Make mine a coke," said the youth in an abandoned tone. 

Fields opened his mouth and roared for the butler. "Throw 
him out," he said. "He's no son of mine." 

At the conclusion of this narrative, Le Baron said, "Well, now, 
damn it, Bill, you ought to feel proud — a grown son, a fine boy 
from what I hear, coming to see you and all." 

He watched Fields' face carefully in the moonlight, and thought 
he saw a softening of the expression, even a hint of moisture in the 
belligerent eyes. But the shifting palm fronds play strange tricks 
with the moonlight, he concluded a moment afterward, for Fields 
suddenly opened his mouth and gave vent to a raucous and dis- 
paraging Bronx cheer. 

Later on, Fields said that he had investigated the visit and that 
the boy was not his son at all. "It was another fellow entirely," 
he said. "I misunderstood the whole business." 

Fields' friends believe that if he ever did deny any of his family, 
it was because he felt that they made him seem old. During the 
war, when his son's wife had a child, the fact that Fields was a 
grandfather was advertised by Walter Winchell. Fields was 
gloomy. "I'm rooked," he told Fowler, using one of his favorite 
terms. "It dates me." He was always touchy about having his age 
mentioned; Mack Sennett used to ruffle his feelings by saying, "I 
saw you juggle when I was a kid, Bill. You were wonderful." 

"That's a lie, you old fraud," Fields would yell. "You're old 
enough to be my father." Now and then Fields told reporters he 
was single, a statement to which his son took pardonable umbrage. 
The son once forced a retraction from a national magazine which 
had quoted Fields on his unmarried state. 

3*5 



W. C. Fields 

By request of his wife, Fields transported his new grandson 
from the hospital to his son's home in Beverly Hills, the son being 
away in the Navy. It was a singular trip. The chauffeur drove 
them — Fields, the estranged Mrs. Fields, his daughter-in-law, her 
mother from Massachusetts, and the babe in his swaddling clothes 
— in the big Lincoln. Fields devoted the trip, to his wife's horror, 
to a detailed explanation of how one could drink martinis without 
that fact being suspected from one's breath. He had two flasks, 
one containing martinis and the other containing a popular 
mouthwash. "You take a snort, like this," he said in the friendliest 
way to his son's mother-in-law, "and then you gargle with mouth- 
wash. After that you spit out," and cranking down a window he 
gave a misty blow. His manner indicated that he hoped the visitor 
was chalking up the trick for future use. 

Fields' sickness gave him a permanent worry about food and 
other shortages. He heard of the bitter malnutrition in Europe, 
and he took measures to ride out the scarcity. During the war he 
began to buy canned goods in large quantities. Once bought, they 
presented a serious problem of storage, which Fields solved, he 
thought, very ingeniously. What it boiled down to was that, at 
the time, he had among his servants only one, a maid, whom he 
trusted. It was in her room, therefore, that his stockpiles of com- 
modity goods were heaped. At the outset of his hoarding, she and 
the others thought that his diligence would soon wane. But as 
the months went by, her situation became critical. To get to her 
closet, she had to shovel cans aside like a miner moving coal, and 
the nightly trip to bed was accomplished over shifting dunes of 
salmon, tuna, peaches, corned beef and carrots. The likelihood 
that Fields would ever eat any of this material, even if he was 
starving, was slight, but its possession bucked him up. He was 
crestfallen when the maid came forward with a badly injured 
shin and said, "Mr. Fields, I don't think I can make it any longer. 

316 



Up to this week it was all right, if I took it slow, but that last load 
of succotash is more than I can handle." 

"Can't get to bed, eh?" said Fields. 

"No, sir — I fell down twice last night," and she thrust out the 
shin again. 

"Well, now, we'll think of something, don't you fret," said 
Fields soothingly, afraid she would sue him. He weighed the 
problem for several days, meanwhile holding up on purchases, 
and finally announced that he had worked it out fine. The only 
thing to do, he said, was pick out a couple of items and keep them 
in his room. For some reason he settled on beets and apricots. 

The rumor once reached Fields' friends that he was planning to 
visit a black market. They determined to stop him. John Decker 
obtained the address of the place, then drove there and struck a 
deal with the proprietor. By the time Fields arrived, with a com- 
modious carrier for his acquisitions, the artist was dressed in a 
white apron and was wearing a false beard. 

He came forward with cringing servility and said, "Wish some- 
thing, sir?" 

"I'm having a look around," Fields told him. 

"Make yourself at home, sir," said Decker, and followed along 
behind. He kept muttering as they walked down the aisles, and 
Fields looked back sharply from time to time. He made out occa- 
sional words that sounded like "rich old bastards" and "no-good 
capitalist cheats." He grew increasingly nervous as his inspection 
drew on and the phrases became more insultingly distinct. Finally 
he blew up and turned around, ready to do battle. "You're selling 
the stuff, aren't you, you goddamned gangster?" he yelled. He set 
up a noisy tirade of abusive language directed at "grafters who 
take advantage of those fine boys fighting out there." 

Decker pulled off his beard and said, "Glad to hear you say so, 
Bill. We feel exactly the same." 

3i7 



W. C. Fields 

Fields was in no mood for cordiality. He left in a huff. Later on 
he was heard to say to another friend, "I was surprised to hear 
that John Decker was seen frequenting one of those dirty black 
markets." He himself never entered another one, so far as his 
friends or servants knew, as long as he lived. 



318 



CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT 



K 



r ow, with his illness halted, Fields was ready for 
his last performances, the priceless but all-too-brief series he made 
for Universal. Except for David Copper field, for which he was 
loaned to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, his pictures had been done 
for Paramount, but money disputes and other frictions caused 
him to seek another sponsor. 

He was beginning the fresh decade of his sixties, one that he 
would not complete, and he was at the height of his powers. His 
illness, his troubles, his suspicions, his worries and frights had 
only served to sharpen his genius. He was at once at the twilight 
and at the climax of his career ; he had brought into co-ordinated 
focus more than half a century of wonderfully varied research 
into the elusive organism of comedy. He knew what was funny, 
and scarcely a day went past that he failed to inform Universal 
of that fact. His four starring films for his new studio — You Can't 
Cheat an Honest Man, My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick, 
and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break — made between 1938 
and 1942 — were distinguished by the same quarrelsome racket 
that had set his previous pictures apart. Toward George Marshall, 
the first director of You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, Fields was 
so steadily disagreeable that the company was split into two parts, 

3*9 



W. C. Fields 

Marshall to direct Edgar Bergen and the dummy, and Eddie Cline 
being brought in to direct Fields. With the hapless Cline he set 
marks of high-handed truculence that the movie industry may 
never see equaled. Cline had been an actor of the old school, and 
Fields, unfairly pouncing on this, regarded every suggestion he 
made as a pure distillate of obsolescent corn. Walking onto a set, 
Cline would play in vigorous detail his version of how a scene 
should go; Fields, immediately afterward, would parody the 
performance cruelly. He danced and capered with much lifting 
of the eyebrows, flinging about of capes, and additional gestures 
not greatly exercised since the heyday of Edwin Booth. In general, 
Fields' parody had no relevance to Cline's suggestions, which, 
everybody else agreed, were quite sound. 

A saying went around Universal that if they'd thrown the pic- 
ture away and filmed the byplay between Cline and Fields, they 
would have produced one of the all-time masterpieces of motion- 
picture art. As it was, the footage they kept turned out satisfac- 
torily. The idea than an honest man can't be cheated had some 
vast, secret attraction for Fields. When the picture was released, 
he would see the title advertised on marquees, and his face would 
glow with whatever strange merriment the words brought to his 
mind. A rough synthesis of his friends' opinions on this point is 
that he intended to convey just the reverse of the statement. They 
feel that he considered himself almost the model of the honest man 
and that as such he had been cheated with regularity throughout 
his life. In any case, it was his favorite slogan, much dearer to 
him than "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," a sentiment he 
never really supported, and he was filled with joy when he talked 
the studio into using it. The basis of Universal's reluctance to 
promote such a bizarre title was twofold; besides the fact that it 
was mechanically troublesome, being suited to no ordinary 
marquee, it had the vaguest connection with the film. 

320 



"How does it tie up, Mr. Fields?" asked one of the Universal 
heads. 

"Ha!" exclaimed the comedian with a meaning glance. 

"Which character did you have in mind, Mr. Fields?" 

The answer, as obscure as the connection, was a ringing 
shout of wild, private laughter. The studio officials decided at 
length that maybe it would be better all around if they let the 
title's significance remain clouded. "I don't even want to know," 
one of them said. 

The role of Larson E. Whipsnade, the shoestring circus 
owner of You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, pleased Fields. By 
browbeating the production unit, he was able to insert many 
scenes that jibed harmoniously with his views. He later spoke 
feelingly of the scene in which his daughter, played by Constance 
Moore, introduced him at the upper-class party of the Bel-Goodie 
family, whose son she hoped to marry. Fields made a big impres- 
sion. He had a colored roustabout drive him to the party in one 
of the circus chariots. He was wearing full dress, except for a 
button-up, sleeveless sweater and an opera cape whose white silk 
underside proclaimed in large letters "Larson E. Whipsnade's 
Circus Giganticus." His lordly air, as he rapped on the family's 
majestic door with a gold-headed cane, was typically synthetic. 
His expression was hollow, tired; he was a little bored with the 
wealthy circle in which he moved. When a butler opened the 
door and presented a salver, Fields started and gave a forgetful 
smile, then dug in his pocket and came up with a dime, which 
he sportingly dropped on the plate. He followed the butler in, 
removed the odious cape, and tried to spread it blatantly over a 
chair, "to get a little break on the advertisement," he explained, 
with precious enunciation of the rolling word, and accenting its 
second syllable. 

Amid an embarrassing hush, the Bel-Goodies and their guests, 

321 



W. C. Fields 

including Miss Moore and her swain, were awaiting the elder 
Whipsnade in the drawing room. His entrance was stately, but 
he was patting his stomach with both hands and seemed to be 
in some pain. "How are you, sir?" asked the white-haired and 
courtly Bel-Goodie in rich tones, and Fields replied, "Not too 
good. Those olives they put in martinis give me a stomachache." 
The guests murmured polite sympathy, and he maundered on, 
seizing the opportunity, and the audience, to tell a revolting anec- 
dote about rattlesnakes. The best efforts of the agitated group 
failed to get across to him that Mrs. Bel-Goodie had a dangerous 
allergy to even the mention of snakes, and he continued his dis- 
course. The room was in an interesting uproar. Every time he 
said "snake," the hostess shrieked and fell over in a faint; the 
noisy attempts to revive her had no effect on the anecdote, which 
droned on to its senseless climax, in which the snake somehow 
saved Fields' life : "the little beggar stuck his tail out of the win- 
dow and rattled for a constable." 

Altogether, the scene undoubtedly represented Fields' idea of 
the general course all upper-class parties should take. 

So many people had commented adversely on his eating habits 
that Fields introduced a little joke at his own expense in this 
movie. At one point he entered his ticket wagon, found a thermos 
opened and on its side, and began to rail in a complaining voice, 
"Somebody left the cork out of my lunch." A moment later the 
emphasis had shifted to his lifelong heckling by children. "Larceny 
Whipsnake! Larceny Whipsnake!" called a wreck of a Western 
Union boy, and Fields, leaning out of his window, looking injured, 
tried to summon him. 

"Street gamin," he cried, with an ingratiating leer. "Street 
gamin." When the boy approached, he said, "Larson E., and it's 
Whipsnade, not Whipsnake." 

"All right, snake." the boy replied cheerfully, and Fields made 

322 



the mistake of throwing a big handful of tickets at him. As the 
crowd scrambled for free admittance, he eyed the child with 
the special malevolence he had reserved so long for the young. 

In some ways, My Little Chickadee and Never Give a Sucker 
an Even Break will probably stand up among the worst movies 
ever made. This scarcely detracts from their over- all worth ; The 
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Great Train Robbery were filled 
with flaws, but they retain elements of classicism. Neither of the 
two Fields pictures had what might even charitably be called a 
plot. The "story line" of Sucker, as the master preferred to think 
of it, previously outlined in Chapter One, was as grotesque a 
travesty of a plot as he could contrive in the brief time allotted 
to him. My Little Chickadee, with Mae West, finally resolved 
itself into a simple duel of ad libbers. The screen play was credited 
to "Mae West and W. G. Fields," but they mostly made it up as 
they went along. There was a good deal of professional antago- 
nism between the two authors. The part called for such extrava- 
gances of wooing on Fields' part that he couldn't shake it off be- 
tween takes. His voice took on the permanent note of endearment, 
and he pranced around, holding his preposterous hat, like an 
adolescent. His style was enriched by frequent doses from the 
flask. The bouncy quality of his conduct began to get on Miss 
West's nerves. One afternoon on the set she said, "Bill's a good 
guy, but it's a shame he has to be so goddamned cute." The sub- 
ject of her analysis had just waltzed over, planted a kiss on her 
forehead with his thumb and index finger, and addressed her as 
"My little brood mare." 

By misfortune, Fields' happiest inspirations — the view of him 
traveling through the cow country on a litter dragged by an 
Indian riding an underfed pony, his entrance into the bridal 
chamber with his sheriff's badge pinned to his pajamas — were 
subordinated to the labored exchanges between him and the co- 

323 



W. C. Fields 

star. The scene in which he was installed as sheriff of the lawless 
Western town was of interest. Fields was happy to be identified 
on the side of the law for once, particularly since he had suc- 
ceeded to the office by fraud, but he was convinced that, in real 
life, if the opportunity had arisen, he still would have been 
slighted in some way. Consequently, at the banquet to celebrate 
his taking over he found himself seated, at the lower end of a 
fifty-foot table, in a closet. Moreover, the ends of a feather boa 
kept drifting down into his plate. He made repeated stabs at 
them with a fork, finally pinning them temporarily to the wall. 
Altogether, it was a pretty scraggly-looking company and a 
banquet scene dismal enough for all ordinary purposes, being 
laid in a run-down saloon, but at the head of the table, Joseph 
Calleia, the outgoing sheriff, was making an emotional speech 
in which he reminded the diners that "all this" had been made 
possible by the incoming Cuthbert J. Twillie. His remarks 
prompted a certain amount of boozy applause, but Twillie, in his 
closet, was occupied in staving off the boa. 

The head of Universal's publicity department, Danny Thomas, 
remembers how Fields used to arrive on the set each morning, 
at whatever hour suited him best, usually with Magda Michael, 
who helped him with his lines, and carrying his hampers, shakers 
and laprobes. He had insisted that the studio equip his dressing 
room with a front porch, an innovation of star temperament, and 
he took rests there in a rocker on sunny days. When a violent 
dispute arose over the story, every hour or two, he would retire 
to his rocker, withdraw miles into his shell, and be, for all prac- 
tical purposes, incommunicado. The directors could plead, abuse, 
storm, and threaten, and he would continue to rock silently, his 
little frosty blue eyes distant and unfriendly. When Fields blew up 
in his lines, his answer was always that he had "a poor memory." 
This was an old and specialized lack, for his memory about other 

324 



things was faultless. Sometimes his bosses would persuade him to 
try a scene their way, as a "dry run," just for fun. But he always 
inspected the cameras first, to see if they were loaded with film. 
"No tricks," he would warn them. "Keep those cameras empty." 

Strangely, he was a marvel of co-operation to the publicity 
boys. For one thing, his publicity stills were the delight of the 
studio photographers. His controlled expressions somehow man- 
aged to convey every facet of his humor, and it was unnecessary 
to add much promotional material to his photos. Thomas drove 
out to Laughlin Park one day to confer with the comedian about 
a release. Fields received him affably, on the lawn, and showed 
him over the grounds, taking careful note of the flowers and 
shrubs. Before Thomas left, a watch salesman Fields had sum- 
moned arrived with a big sample case of his wares. Ever since 
the hallucinations at Las Encinas, Fields had showed an unusual 
interest in watches. He looked these over slowly, handling them, 
and holding them up to the light. At length he selected several 
for himself, and asked Thomas, "Do you see any others I ought 
to have?" 

"I like the gold oval one there, Mr. Fields," he said. 

Fields picked it up, held it out to him, and said, "It's yours. 
A little gift from one of your grateful charges." 

Fields got $125,000 for each of his pictures at Universal; it 
took him approximately two months to finish one. This amount 
was swelled by the $25,000 he required and got for his "stories," 
which were nothing but scrambled notes. He never wrote a 
screen treatment or anything else which took time or effort. His 
literary offerings for the cinema were bare outlines of plots, situa- 
tions, all of them troublesome and some downright impossible to 
film, such as his plan to parachute off a mountain with an um- 
brella. Most of his pictures made money for Universal, despite 
their unconventional outlook on life. By the time of his employ- 

325 



W. C. Fields 

ment for that studio, he had a large and definite, even hysterical, 
following, and its members could be counted on to see each new 
release over and over again. Fields was always curious as to why 
his pictures were not shown, on their first run, at the massive 
palaces, such as the Radio City Music Hall. He pointed out, rue- 
fully, that Never Give a Sucker an Even Break opened in New 
York at the Rialto, a small pleasure center usually given over to 
the exhibition of "horror" films. When the officials explained, 
with great patience, considering everything, that audiences in the 
big theaters demanded the usual ingredients of Hollywood films — 
well-barbered stars, a plot with a strong emetic quality, and 
painful, saccharine, often ungrammatical dialogue — he said, 
"Well, damn it, aren't my pictures rich in those things?" 

"Yours are mostly about cheating and robbery and terrible 
people, Mr. Fields," they had to tell him. 

The truth is that Universal, as well as Paramount and Metro- 
Goldwyn-Mayer, despite their general hewing to the outworn 
and failing American movie line, are deserving of considerable 
honor for the boldness, forbearance, and latitude which char- 
acterized their handling of a difficult comedian for so many years. 
With a good deal of courage, they continued to turn out products 
of his that defied every law of the industry, and sometimes netted 
a minute financial return. 

Of the movies that Fields used to square old, and sometimes 
imaginary, accounts, The Bank Dick was his special pet. He was 
given a free hand in its construction, and he had a frolicsome 
time. He received a screen credit for the story, under his alternate 
pen name of Mahatma Kane Jeeves. In many particulars it was 
a thrilling plot. To begin with, it resulted in the only known movie 
to date in which the hero was wholly unregenerate throughout 
and still reaped every possible reward. Fields cast himself as Egbert 
Souse, ("accent grahve over the e") 9 an improvident husband in 

326 



a town called Lompoc, which by a wild coincidence spells "Cop 
Mol" backward. His wife, Agatha Souse, played by Cora Wither- 
spoon, represented Fields' idea of the typical housewife — a nag- 
ging slattern who kept her mother constantly at her side. He had 
various progeny, one of whom, a daughter, hit him in the back 
of the head with a rock before the film was five minutes old. His 
effort at retaliation, an attempt to kill her with a concrete urn, 
was frustrated by the family. 

The problem Fields found himself confronting, and it was a 
ticklish one, was how to talk his prospective son-in-law, a bank 
clerk, into embezzling $500 of his employers' money to invest in 
a beefsteak mine. To this end he had an admirable stroke of 
fortune. A pair of robbers, Repulsive Rogan and Filthy McNasty, 
stuck up the bank ; in making a getaway one of them, carrying the 
loot, stumbled over a park bench where Souse was reading the 
Lompoc Picayune -Intelligencer and knocked himself cold. Fields 
picked him up, modestly explained to the town that he had cowed 
him into surrender, even though the man had pulled an assagai 
on him, and collected his idea of a bank's reward — the institu- 
tion's new calendar, entitled "Spring in Lompoc." He was also 
offered the job of bank dick, or policeman. 

The scene in which he went home with the good news of his 
capture was Fields' definitive picture of American home life. His 
wife, his eldest daughter, Myrtle, and his mother-in-law, Mrs. 
Hermisillo Brunch, were playing cards in the living room. He 
walked in with an expression of self-conscious pride. He was 
smoking a cigarette, wearing a straw hat and a ratty Windsor 
tie, and carrying a newspaper with a splashy account of his fake 
heroics. "Captured this bandit," he said, grinning sheepishly, as 
if he wished to disclaim credit, which was not remarkable, since 
he'd had nothing whatever to do with the capture. "They've got 
a story here," he said in a louder voice, but his wife seized the 

327 



W. C. Fields 

paper without looking up and flung it into the fireplace. At this 
point his mother-in-law stuck a finger in her mouth and began 
to make puffing noises. Then they all jumped on him about smok- 
ing in the house. Watching them, browbeaten, Fields started to- 
ward his room on the second floor, but in his preoccupation he 
missed the stairs and ascended a hassock, a chair, a table, and a 
bookcase, upon which he found himself bumping at the ceiling. 
As he climbed ignominiously down, his family gave him the 
respectful attention they would have accorded a criminal lunatic. 

When he left the house shortly afterward he had regained his 
aplomb. And by a lucky accident he was able to do a favor for 
an elderly lady and her chauffeur, whose limousine had broken 
down near by. Fields lifted his hat, waved the perspiring chauf- 
feur aside, reached under the hood with a dainty gesture, gave 
a single turn to a screw, and the whole engine dropped down into 
the street. He lifted his hat again, this time somewhat more 
briskly, and made off down the sidewalk at a pretty rapid clip. 
The incident had no bearing on the plot ; it was one of those irrele- 
vancies which Fields had always cherished, and which had started 
so many ulcers in the movie industry. A few months after the 
picture was released he told a friend that the automobile skit had 
been taken from his own life. "People were always offering to 
help me out like that, with about the same results," he said. 

His old grievance against banks produced the next scene, one 
of the most satisfactory in the entire picture, Fields felt. He 
entered the bank to collect his reward and meet the president, 
Mr. Skinner. But every time he reached a teller's window, after 
standing in line, he was told to "Move aside, please, and let the 
next man up." This went on for several minutes, as Fields meekly 
obeyed, with the crushed mien of one accustomed to rough 
handling in banks, and then he finally got his message across. 
Mr. Skinner received him with enthusiasm. The banker, im- 

328 



pressed, asked about some details of the fortuitous capture. He 
expressed particular interest in the assagai. In evading this issue, 
Fields launched a windy account of a knife fight he'd once had 
with a colored midget named Major Moe. "He was using a small 
knife, about an inch long," the hero related. 

"An inch long?" asked Skinner in a baffled voice. "I don't 
believe I've ever seen a knife that " 

"It wasn't so much a knife as it was a razor," said Fields, and 
rambled on to other exploits. 

Mr. Skinner broke in to give him the reward — "Spring in 
Lompoc" and "my heartiest handshake." When he mentioned 
the bank-dick job, Fields looked concerned and asked what the 
hours would be, roughly. "The bank opens at ten sharp," the 
president told him. "Well, that's all right," said Fields. "I think I 
can make that." He appeared in an ill-fitting uniform the next 
day and took up a stand in the lobby. In almost no time he demon- 
strated the wisdom of Skinner's appointment: he sneaked up on 
a small boy playing with a cap pistol, grabbed him by the neck, 
and shook him roughly. 

Fields' opportunity with the beefsteak mine came to him by 
chance. In one of the abruptest scene changes on record, he 
rushed in to his favorite lounge, The Black Pussy Cat Cafe and 
Snack Bar, and, badly agitated, said to the bartender, "Did I 
spend a twenty-dollar bill in here last night?" 

"Why, yes, you did, Mr. Souse." 

"Thank heaven," said Fields, mopping his brow. "I thought 
I'd lost it." 

He relaxed and ordered a "depth bomb," with some water on 
the side. He drank the potion and washed his fingers carefully; 
then he called for another round, including a fresh glass of water. 
"Never like to bathe in the same water twice," he confided to a 
neighbor, an emaciated ruin that Fields often had standing 

329 



W. C. Fields 

around in his movie scenes. When he finished, he wiped his fingers 
with a napkin, rolled it into a ball, and tossed it negligently into 
the air; when it fell, he boosted it into a spittoon with his heel. 
Even in his juggling days he had never been in better form. 

In the saloon he met J. Frothingham Waterbury, an investment 
counselor, a man with the composite impressiveness of all the 
salesmen who had tried to peddle Fields stocks for fifty years. 
Waterbury described the mine and the probable results of in- 
vesting. "You'll have a country place," he said, "with a beer 
river running through it, and all you'll have to do is sit in a rocker, 
wrapped in a Paisley shawl, and sign checks." 

Fields' interest was aroused by the implications of this story. 
"You mean I'll have a fountain pen by then?" he asked, elated. 
Pressed for cash, he started to work on his prospective son-in-law, 
Og Ogilbie. "Don't be a fuddie duddie, don't be a moon calf," 
he told the reluctant youth. "Invest in the beefsteak mine. You'll 
have a country place, with your old grandmother's Paisley shawl 
running through it. A rocker, a beer river " and in his emo- 
tion he became incoherent, a little indistinct. 

Ogilbie capitulated, and the abstraction was accomplished, 
but the bank examiner, J. Pinkerton Snoopington, turned up 
unexpectedly and Fields was obliged to divert him. Franklin 
Pangborn played the part of the examiner, a performance which 
was in some measure effaced by the brilliant light of the star. 
Fields had always considered Pangborn a very funny man; like 
Preston Sturges, he used him whenever possible. The byplay 
between the worried Souse and the conscientious Snoopington 
has been mentioned as outstanding among the gems of Fields 
comedy. 

His first effort to prevent Snoopington from reaching the bank 
took the form of showing him around the town. Passing a hard- 
ware store, Fields urged that the examiner weigh himself on a 

33° 



sidewalk scales. "The proprietor's a friend of mine," he said. "I 
can get you weighed free." Snoopington declined, and Fields 
steered him, over some protest, into the Black Pussy Gat. "Is it 
possible to get a light rye highball in here?" asked the examiner 
nervously. "You can get anything you want," Fields told him 
with municipal pride. "The place is a regular joint." To the bar- 
tender he called, "Have you seen Michael Finn lately?" 

"I think I can find him for you, Mr. Souse," the bartender 
answered. 

Snoopington was seized by a violent illness during his second 
drink. Filled with solicitude, Fields hurried him to his room at the 
New Old Lompoc House and called a physician, "Dr. Stall." 
As he telephoned, he absently plucked some crockery grapes from 
a table piece and crunched into them with a painful racket. 
Fields at this time was fresh from his own medical wrangles, 
and he worked hard to present the physician of The Bank Dick 
in a proper light. In the medical office, as the doctor answered 
the phone, was a male patient, nude to the waist but with a hat 
on, standing in an attitude of moribund dejection. "The first 
thing you'll have to do is cut out all health foods," the doctor 
was saying. "That'll be ten dollars. You'll get your clothes with a 
receipt." 

In Snoopington's room, the doctor advised the examiner against 
all exercise and prescribed some pills about the size of golf balls 
that he'd brought in a jar. "Take these three nights running and 
then skip a night," he directed. 

"But I thought you said no exercise," gasped the patient. 

"The doctor's right, the doctor's right," Fields assured him, 
with an awful mockery of a bedside manner. 

When the doctor left, he offered to get some food for the nau- 
seated sufferer. "Some nice pork chops fried in grease," he 

33i 



W. C. Fields 

suggested, "a couple of cold poached eggs?" Snoopington dived 
for the bathroom, and Fields left, looking nonplused. 

A kind of side plot in The Bank Dick involved a movie com- 
pany that was stranded in Lompoc on location. The director had 
come down drunk. Fields offered his services, on the ground that 
he was a born director. "I've got the celluloid in my blood," he 
told the producer. It was a chance he had been waiting for. He 
assumed a hunched-up position in the director's sedan chair, 
which had "A. Pismo Clam" stenciled on the back, and was 
carried toward the waiting unit. Going around a corner, he stuck 
out one hand, in a traffic signal, but the chair overturned and he 
was spilled out into the street. However, on location he took 
immediate, expert charge. He surveyed the juvenile and the 
ingenue with distaste. The juvenile seemed to be about seven feet 
tall, while the ingenue was scarcely more than half that. "Are you 
standing in a hole?" he asked her anxiously; then he outlined the 
next action. "It's a football scene," he told the juvenile, who was 
dressed in evening clothes. "But what about this suit?" asked the 
youth. Fields considered, as if the point were well taken. Then 
he solved it by saying, "You can change your hat." 

Through machinations almost too devious to follow, he captured 
the second bandit, again by fraud, earned the wild acclaim of the 
town, got a permanent job with the movie company, whose 
pleasure over the football scene was unbounded, sold an "original 
movie story" for ten thousand dollars, and impressed his family 
into subordinate devotion. His manipulations of Snoopington 
also worked : the distraught examiner was sick as a dog for three 
days, in which time a bonanza vein was struck in the beefsteak 
mine, and the money was replaced. 

The final scene, and a great comfort to Fields, saw him seated 
at the dinner table of his sumptuous new house. At his wife's 
request he was finishing "a second noggin of cafe baba au rhum." 

332 



He arose, kissed them all good-by, then struck out for an evening's 
entertainment, after a little trouble at the door, during which 
he put his hat on his upthrust cane by mistake and searched for 
it all over the floor. He paddled off across the lawn, his expressive 
hips conveying high self-esteem, and turned, humming, in the 
direction of the saloon. His self-esteem was forgivable; he had 
just completed one of the great classics of American comedy. 



333 



CHAPTER TWEI\TY-NII\E 



T 



he expenditures of energy that went into his 
Universal series caused Fields to step up his drinking. As before, 
he was never drunk, but he found that even alcohol was losing 
its sedative magic. He became listless and dispirited, and his old 
illness, at the best only arrested, began putting forth new, small 
shoots. On his sixty-fifth birthday, in 1944, he told one of his 
household, "All of a sudden I'm a tired old man" — a curious 
revelation, for never in his life had he been known to complain 
of physical pain. During the acutest tortures of his polyneuritis, 
his only reaction was to swear and make jokes about it. As his 
health began its final dissolution, the movie companies were 
reluctant to sign him to contracts. His idleness took its added toll ; 
he fretted, and worried, and, for the first time, added up the bal- 
ances in his bankbooks. 

"I have been trying to get into the movies these many months, 
but I can't seem to consummate the deal," he told Roy McCardle, 
an old friend of his Ziegfeld days. "I've cut the bite almost in 
half but I still have no takers." A little later he said to McCardle, 
"I'm in a dither to know just what has happened. Maybe I've 
kicked too many of the chosen people in the can. There's a 
Nubian in the fuel supply and I can't locate him." 

334 



He lost the house on De Mille Drive. Much as he loved it, he 
refused to increase the rent when his lease expired, and the land- 
lord promptly evicted him. "Will you rent another place, Mr. 
Fields?" Miss Michael asked him, as they sat in his lawn swing 
after receiving the fateful notice. Despite the turbulence of the 
day, his face, she thought, showed an odd kind of repose. "No, 
no," he said easily. "I think it's back to the sanitarium for the 
nonce." 

"We both knew what he meant," she says. "This was his last 
house — he would never leave the sanitarium." 

When they got up to walk back to the house, she noticed that 
his legs were unsteady. His motor impulses had been failing for 
weeks. His fingers had grown so arthritic that he could no longer 
juggle, and he frequently stumbled and fell. His sleep, frag- 
mentary and shallow for years, had become wildly restless. He 
often tumbled out of bed. So disturbing was this symptom that 
he bought a gigantic antique cradle and substituted it for his 
four-poster. Many times in the night, Miss Monti would tiptoe 
in to see that, in thrashing about, he had not flung himself over 
the sideboards of even this sturdy bunk. 

Before they left the house for the last time, Fields made the 
old inspection tour of his grounds. The day was fine, everything 
was in order — no trespassers in sight. In his flower beds he ap- 
peared to be searching for something; at length they saw him 
scramble down the slope to his lily pool — a painful feat, since he 
could scarcely walk on level ground — and toss the largest of his 
red roses onto the waterless stone bottom. Then, gleaming with 
sweat, he came up to the car and they drove off toward Las 
Encinas. 

Once again he was established comfortably in the sanitarium. 
Miss Monti went with him; Miss Michael visited him several 
times a week. He made light of his condition, but he wanted his 

335 



W. C. Fields 

affairs put in order. In the past, in his talks with Gene Fowler, 
he had always referred to death, for some reason, as "the fellow 
in the bright nightgown." Now, in a humorous tone, he said to 
Miss Michael, "None of us, sick or well, can tell when the fellow 
in the bright nightgown's coming to pay us a visit." He spent his 
days reading, dictating letters, seeing a few close friends, and 
sitting outside in a rocker, his eyes fixed on the same distant 
horizons, his expression as fiercely belligerent as ever. During one 
period of improvement he made an album of records, having to 
do mainly with the calamities which had attended his mistakenly 
drinking a glass of water. On September 10, 1946, he wrote 
Fowler saying that Franklin Pangborn — "J. Pinkerton Snoop- 
ington" — had been out again, with suggestions that Fields, to 
steady his gait, buy one of the new "Phantom Crotches." On the 
phone the next day he said to Fowler, "I want to wish you and 
yours a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in case I take 
off suddenly for the Far East after reading The New Yorker 
article on the atomic bomb." 

Fields was in truth preparing for a journey, but he had reversed 
his directions. He was growing much worse. Like his friend John 
Barrymore, he now had a badly diseased liver and a dropsical 
condition which embarrassed his heart. As the fall deepened into 
winter, approaching the holiday season which he professed to 
loathe, he had periods of delirium. Occasionally he cursed and 
railed at things which Miss Monti and Miss Michael had never 
heard him mention previously, and once, out of a blue sky, he 
sang what appeared to be a kind of love song, called up from some 
experience of his youth that had been long forgotten by his con- 
scious mind. 

On Christmas Eve, Fowler telephoned the sanitarium to arrange 
a visit for the next day at eleven. Ordinarily, Fields slept until 
ten, then had a massage and "breakfast" — some fruit juice fol- 

336 



lowed by martinis, if he could get them. Fowler was told that 
the comedian was under treatment and would not be able to 
receive callers until after the first of the year. "It was the first 
time I'd suspected how serious his condition really was," he says. 
Late into the night of Christmas Eve, Fields' room was full of 
doctors and nurses. Both Miss Monti and Miss Michael were 
there, waiting for the answer to what was plainly his severest 
crisis. After sixty-six years of the most damaging kind of abuse, his 
life stream was ebbing out. Shortly before midnight, Miss Monti 
took his hand and began calling to him. While she pleaded, he 
opened his eyes, and, noting the people in the room, put a finger 
to his lips and winked. A few minutes later, as bells over the 
city announced the arrival of Christmas morning, he suffered a 
violent hemorrhage of the stomach. The blood bubbled thickly 
out of his lips, he drew several long sighs, and lay still. The fellow 
in the bright nightgown, so often frustrated before, had finally 
come for W. C. Fields. 

Christmas noon, Dave Chasen and Billy Grady were approach- 
ing Fields' cottage. The fact of his death had not yet been an- 
nounced. They were dressed up in funny clothes; Grady had a 
couple of bottles and Chasen had a hamper of delicacies. At the 
gate, an undertaker and several assistants passed them carrying a 
basket. "Somebody dead?" asked Chasen, a little addled. 

"Mr. Fields died early this morning," said the undertaker. 

Chasen, a mild, gentle man, grew white and his legs started 
to buckle. Grady helped him to the ground, then uncorked one 
of the bottles and gave him a drink. He took a drink himself. 
They sat there half an hour or so, blowing their noses, swiping 
at their eyes, and finishing the bottle. They noticed at last that it 
was raining. "It's a rainy day," said Grady. "Bill would have liked 
that fine." Much relieved, they got up and went home. 

337 



W. C. Fields 

A period of confusion followed the comedian's death. It is 
perhaps best to draw a curtain of charity over much of the shoddy 
fuss that followed the reading of his will. Miss Michael, as 
executrix, faithfully discharged her duties when the physicians 
pronounced him dead. She called Mrs. Fields and her son Claude. 
They came to the sanitarium with the greatest dispatch, and took 
charge of his effects. Fields' will stipulated that his body was to be 
taken to a cemetery and immediately cremated, and that under 
no conditions was he to have any sort of funeral. He had three. 
First, Mrs. Fields and Claude had a good-sized public one, of a 
generally non-sectarian nature, at which Edgar Bergen officiated. 
Bergen made a brief, unemotional talk. "It seems wrong not to 
pray for a man who gave such happiness to the world," he told a 
large crowd of friends and film people. "But that was the way he 
wanted it. Bill knew life, and knew that laughter was the way 
to live it. He knew that happiness depended on disposition, not 
position. . . . We simply say farewell." 

Mrs. Fields indicated that she would overrule the comedian's 
wish about cremation, on the ground that such a procedure was 
contrary to her religious doctrines. No mention was made of 
Fields' doctrines. Commenting on the service, the Los Angeles 
Times said, "When the family departed, Carlotta (Monti) tried 
to go to the crypt. A cemetery attendant stopped her. On orders 
of Mr. Fields' son, she was not to be admitted until the crypt was 
sealed." After the first funeral Mrs. Fields had another, a Catholic 
service. Then Miss Monti had a third funeral, a spiritualist read- 
ing, presided over by the Reverend Mae Taylor, a leading Holly- 
wood practitioner. 

The will left Mrs. Fields and Claude each ten thousand dollars. 
It mentioned trust funds of seventy-five dollars weekly for Fields' 
brother, Walter, sixty dollars weekly for his sister, Adele, and 
twenty-five dollars weekly for Carlotta. Various other friends, 

33* 



relatives and employees were bequeathed sums of a few hundred 
or a few thousand dollars. The remainder of the estate, which 
was appraised at $800,000, in cash, was to be used for the estab- 
lishment of the "W. C. Fields College for Orphan White Boys 
and Girls, Where No Religion of Any Sort Is to Be Preached." 
Gene Fowler recalls that some time before his death Fields had 
intended the orphanage for colored children. His decision to 
switch was caused by the insolence, or imagined insolence, of a 
colored servant he employed. During his lifetime, Fields' affections 
for races and sects veered sharply from day to day. In general, 
however, he bore all groups the same considered animosity. And 
from start to finish it was entirely superficial. Even after his change 
of heart about the orphans, he paid off a $4000 mortgage on the 
house of his Negro cook, and he once ordered from his premises 
a man who used the word "nigger" within earshot of his staff. 

Mrs. Fields' and her son's answer to the will was to file suits 
that, in effect, would convey almost the entire estate to them. 
Mrs. Fields, in claiming half the $800,000 as automatically hers 
under the California community property law, seems likely to 
make out, as the widow, very comfortably; the future of the 
orphans looks dubious. Among her other suits, she claims that 
Fields, during his life, "gave away" more than $400,000 to 
women, and she is entitled, she says, to half of that sum, too. The 
lawsuits, involving the usual congress of attorneys, drag on, and 
the estate, accumulated so bitterly by one of the world's hardest 
workers, dwindles. In the meantime, the court has directed Miss 
Michael, as executrix, to pay Mrs. Fields $600 a month. Miss 
Monti has never received any payments from her minute trust 
fund, the court not having reached a decision on it to date. At 
present she is working in a restaurant. 

In the scrapping over his money, Fields himself was largely 
forgotten. Two years after his death he lay in an unmarked grave 

339 



W. C. Fields 

— an anonymous crypt in an ornate niche at Forest Lawn, a pre- 
tentious burial park that he frequently derided. Miss Michael 
and Miss Monti often go out with the flowers he loved, hoping 
on each trip that somebody might have gotten around to putting 
a simple identifying inscription on what promises to be his final 
resting place. Miss Michael, reflecting on all the turbulence that 
harassed her employer, sometimes thinks of a question she once 
asked him. "If you had your life to do over, what would you like 
to change, Mr. Fields?" He thought a minute before answering. 
"You know," he said, "I'd like to see how I would have made out 
without liquor." 

It seems doubtful, as Bergen told the funeral crowd, that he 
could have brought any more happiness to all the people he de- 
lighted for so many years. It is almost certain, though, that his 
personal life would have been more normal, less painful, what he 
had probably dreamed for it in the cruel time after his flight from 
home. But if George Sand was in the right, in her letter to Gustave 
Flaubert, then "Uhomme c'est rien, Uceuvre c'est tout" — the 
man is nothing, the work is everything — and Fields had brilliantly 
discharged his debt to society. 

The night of his death, several of his friends gathered at 
Chasen's restaurant for a wake. There, beneath John Decker's 
famous painting of the comedian as "Victoria Regina" — squatting 
lumpily with a doily and a silver salt cellar perched atop his head 
— they talked about his life and why they had liked him. Toward 
morning they put it briefly into words, and phoned it to the Holly- 
wood Reporter, where it appeared as a page ad on December 
27, 1946. 



340 



THE MOST PREJUDICED AND HONEST AND BE- 
LOVED FIGURE OF OUR SO-CALLED "COLONY" 
WENT AWAY ON A DAY THAT HE PRETENDED TO 
ABHOR "CHRISTMAS." 

WE LOVED HIM, AND PECULIARLY ENOUGH 

HE LOVED US. 

TO THE MOST AUTHENTIC HUMORIST SINCE 
MARK TWAIN, TO THE GREATEST HEART THAT 

HAS BEATEN SINCE THE MIDDLE AGES W. C. 

FIELDS, OUR FRIEND. 

Dave Chasen 
Billy Grady 
Eddie Sutherland 
Ben Hecht 
Grantland Rice 
Greg La Cava 
Gene Fowler 



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